In recent years the word “antioxidant” has been used ever more by marketing firms and in magazines, but what actually is an antioxidant, and what potential benefits do they offer?
Understanding Free Radicals
To understand antioxidants, we first need to get to grips with the concept of “free radicals”. Hold on here, because this is important…
As you know, everything around us is composed of tiny molecules. Each of these molecules essentially consists of a central nucleus, with electrons zipping around them. Think of them like planets circling the sun, but on a much, much smaller scale.
Each molecule has a certain number of “spaces” for electrons, and when these are filled the molecule is stable. Everything works as it should. The problem occurs when a molecule doesn’t have the right number of electrons.
Molecules with an uneven number of electrons will try to “steal” electrons from others to become stable again. If they succeed, then the molecule that lost an electron then becomes unstable itself, and will try to scavenge replacements themselves. This leads to a “cascade” effect as damaged molecules impact others down a long chain of reactions. As a result, one single free radical can end up impacting a whole host of other molecules both directly and indirectly.
The important thing to note is that losing an electron changes the chemical nature of a molecule. In doing so, it can become damaged, and doesn’t perform its purpose properly. When this damage builds up across millions of cells, problems can occur in the body.
Where do Free Radicals Come From?
Free radicals are all around us. One of the most common sources of free radicals comes from oxygen itself. It has been called one of life’s greatest ironies, that while oxygen is critical for our survival, a small percentage of oxygen molecules can also contain free radicals. Oxygen, it seems, can be toxic over time.
Of course, there are a huge range of other sources of free radicals. They may be caused by the ultraviolet light in sunshine, by pollution, cigarette smoke and are even produced naturally in the body. In other words, these potentially harmful substances are all around us. If we can’t stop them coming into contact with our bodies, the key is therefore to protect ourselves from the damage they can cause.
So Free Radicals Are Always Bad?
Most people understand that free radicals are bad. They have been linked to everything from aging to a plethora of serious diseases, including cancer, atherosclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Oddly, free radicals actually aren’t always bad. The free radicals created in the body can actually be beneficial in the right volumes; they can help us to protect the body against pathogens like viruses and bacteria. The same processes that can damage our own cells and even our DNA can do exactly the same to harmful microorganisms; free radicals can, therefore, represent a useful tool for actually keeping us in good health.
The key, therefore, isn’t the elimination of free radicals entirely, but in maintaining a healthy balance. We want enough free radicals to protect ourselves, but not so many that we come to harm. It’s a bit like Goldilocks looking for that porridge that is “just right”.
Where Antioxidants Come into the Picture
Antioxidants help to protect our bodies from the damage of free radicals. In essence, they contain free electrons, which they readily give up to stabilize free radicals. In doing so, the cells of your body remain unaffected.
Scientists have long known that plants are the best natural source of antioxidants, and almost every salad, fruit, nut or vegetable we eat helps to provide additional antioxidant support. Broccoli, for example, is known to contain 70 different antioxidants, all of which have the potential to protect you from free radicals.
That said, the volume of antioxidants can vary widely from one plant species to another. Studies of antioxidant content have shown that some of the highest concentrations are found in:
In other words, based on what our current knowledge, a regular bowl of berries is likely the most effective way to boost your antioxidant levels.
Alongside berries, however, virtually any plant-based foods will offer you some protection. This can even include the herbs and spices that we include in recipes. Eating the recommended 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day can therefore go a long way to supplementing your diet with antioxidants.
Pleasantly, a number of beverages derived from plants have also been found to be rich in antioxidants. Tea and coffee are both great examples, as is the resveratrol contained in red wine.
Generally speaking, therefore, a diet that is rich in natural produce is probably your best possible protection against a range of potential health issues. If you struggle to consume enough plant matter, of course, there are also a range of supplements that are rich in antioxidant action.
Simply Supplements offer a range of antioxidant products such as cranberry tablets.