If you are reading up on wellness and nutrition you have probably come across the terms antioxidants and free radicals quite a bit, but it’s hard to find a good explanation of what they actually are and what they do in your body. We’ve reviewed the latest scientific research, to help explain the basics of antioxidants and free radicals. We’ll aim to make these complicated concepts easy to grasp.
A lot of people believe that antioxidants are the superhero molecules in the neverending battle against villainous free radicals. While it is true that antioxidants greatly reduce the damage caused by free radicals, this does not necessarily mean that more antioxidants is always better. The truth is there’s a delicate balance that exists between antioxidants and free radicals.
Technically, free radicals are defined as unstable atoms or compounds (combinations of atoms) in the body. They are unstable because they have a spare, “extra” electron that is prone to “stealing” an electron from somewhere else. When this happens, it can result in a new free radical, and potentially cause a cascade of reactions. Every free radical has the potential to damage DNA, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and other molecules. The more free radicals circulating in the body, the greater the likelihood of damage to healthy cells.When there is an overabundance of free radicals, it’s called “oxidative stress.”
However, it is important to recognize that free radicals are a natural byproduct of your body’s cells when they use oxygen to produce energy. Free radicals are infamous for the damage they cause, and their role in aging and disease, but they’re the product of necessary and normal metabolism. For this reason, some level of them is to be expected.
As a byproduct of your body’s normal metabolic processes, free radicals are also a key component in the function of the immune system. For example, small amounts of free radicals even act as a defense mechanism against invading microbes. It is the modern, external sources of free radicals, such as pollution, cigarette smoke, radiation, and even medications, that are more problematic, as they lead to an excess.
Our bodies naturally produce a variety of antioxidants to neutralize excessive free radicals. This is why antioxidants are commonly seen as promoting immunity, and acting as a defense against many chronic diseases.
Antioxidants counteract free radicals in two ways. First, they can safely interact with free radicals, stabilizing the volatile compounds, and ending the harmful chain reaction. In addition to this important characteristic, many of the antioxidants you commonly hear about have other functions in the body. Vitamins C and E are considered antioxidants, in addition to their many other valuable functions.
The other way that antioxidants can reduce oxidative stress is by preventing the formation of new free radicals, or neutralizing pro-oxidants before they can initiate their chain reaction. These preventative antioxidants are sometimes described as “scavenging.” (If you are interested in going deeper into the biology and chemistry on this topic, check out Free Radicals, Antioxidants in Disease and Health from the International Journal of Biomedical Science.)
You may already be familiar with many of the antioxidants that are produced endogenously, or in the body: ubiquinol (aka CoQ10), glutathione, uric acid, melatonin, bilirubin, transferrin, and L-arginine, to name a few.
Antioxidants that must be obtained from exogenous or outside sources, such as diet or supplementation, include vitamin E, vitamin C, carotenoids (lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin), selenium, manganese, zinc, flavonoids, and omega-3, and omega-6 fatty acids.
Preventing oxidative stress requires limiting your exposure to external sources of free radicals, and safely increasing your intake of antioxidants. A nutritious diet rich in fresh, whole foods is one way to increase your intake of antioxidants. Supplementation is another way to increase antioxidant intake. But, the supplements that are right for you are highly personal, depending on your diet, lifestyle, health history, and goals.
These include air pollution, UV rays, x-rays, tobacco smoke, asbestos, and industrial chemicals.
Eat a diet rich in a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. Various laboratory tests can measure the antioxidant levels in food. The most common test is the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) test. The higher the ORAC score, the higher the amount of antioxidants measured in the food. (Take ORAC scores with a grain of salt when you see them used in advertising claims, however. The USDA has deemphasized ORAC scores due to misuse by advertisers, and lack of scientific research around health claims.
Generally, when referring to whole foods, ORAC scores are a useful guideline. To boost the amount of antioxidants in your diet, fill your grocery cart with fresh berries (blueberries, goji berries, blackberries, cranberries), dark leafy greens, prunes, olives, green tea, and dark chocolate.
Remember, there is a difference between antioxidants in food and antioxidant supplements, as well as supplements derived from whole foods versus those synthesized. As mentioned, antioxidants can act as pro-oxidants when used in excess, resulting in negative effects. Never exceed the recommended dosages when using supplements, unless advised by a physician. Consult a health professional or take an online assessment to determine which supplements are right for you.