Antioxidant – Biochemical Life Savers
For many years, the field of nutrition focused on illnesses caused by a lack of macronutrients like protein, or micronutrients such as iron. More recent research has made it clear that antioxidants are just as critical to preventing the diseases that weaken or kill most people. Numerous chemicals act as antioxidants, including vitamins A, C and E. But there are many others compounds that are found in a variety of foods.
Why are antioxidants such key components of disease prevention? Because our bodies are constantly producing unstable compounds in the course of normal functioning. One such essential processes is cellular energy production. That creates oxygen free radicals, a form of oxygen that can cause a lot of damage. Antioxidants deactivate these harmful compounds and that is why they are life savers.
The body usually makes sufficient antioxidants but there are situations where oxygen free radical production is increased and overwhelms the body. One such circumstance is chronic inflammation. Inflammation is a protective response of the body to anything deemed to be a threat. It can be caused by germs that have gotten into the tissues, a chemical like carbon tetrachloride, or even unhealthy foods such as sugar, or cigarette smoke. This inflammatory response can help eliminate the foreign substance but in the process oxygen free radical production increases. If inflammation is quickly resolved, no permanent harm is likely. But if the cause of the inflammation isn’t removed or avoided, as with years smoking, the inflammatory process continues and the long-term increase in oxygen free radicals injures tissues and cause diseases.
The very good news is that antioxidants can also be consumed and boost the level of antioxidants in the body. This is why you’ve probably read a lot about eating fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole grains and other healthy foods. Different foods contain different types of antioxidants and the greater the variety of foods consumed, the more likely you are to be protected from a wider array of diseases. Eating an assortment of various colored fruits and vegetables is just one way to help ensure this. For example, yellow and orange vegetables and fruits are rich in carotenoids. And carotenoids like beta-carotene act as antioxidants.
Many research studies have supported the disease-preventing power of antioxidants. One large, long study found that the research subjects who consumed more than 27 servings of vegetables, berries and fruit per month, when compared with an otherwise similar group that ate less than that amount, had an 8 to 10% decrease in all cause mortality, as well as a 20% lower stroke death rate. Higher fruit consumption was linked most strongly with lower cancer rates, and regular produce intake was associated in particular with less gastrointestinal cancer.
It should be noted that cooked vegetables seem to offer fewer benefits than raw. Also, fruit juices aren’t as protective as whole fruit, in part because the fiber in the fruit slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream. The pesticides on many types of produce can make them less healthy. If cost is a concern, stick to organic for the “dirty dozen” such as apples and strawberries, but not for the “clean fifteen,” produce like oranges with a thick skin that can be removed.
Damage from oxygen free radicals is a major threat to health. It has been linked to the start of diseases ranging from cardiovascular disease to neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, certain dermatological disorders, endocrine disorders like type 2 diabetes, and immune disorders, to cancers. But antioxidants are plentiful in a wide variety of healthy foods. This certainly makes them a lifesaver in my book!
- Hjartaker, et al, (2015) “Consumption of berries, fruits and vegetables and mortality among 10,000 Norwegian men followed for four decades.” European Journal of Nutrition (2015) 54: 599-608
- Pratt, M.D. and K. Matthews (2004). SuperFoods Rx. NY, NY: Harper Collins.
- Yang, et al (2018). “Proanthocyanidins against Oxidative Stress: From Molecular Mechanisms to Clinical Applications.” Biomedical Research International. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/8584136