Antioxidants: Biochemical Life Savers

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!

References:

  1. 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
  2. Pratt, M.D. and K. Matthews (2004). SuperFoods Rx. NY, NY: Harper Collins.
  3. Yang, et al (2018). “Proanthocyanidins against Oxidative Stress: From Molecular Mechanisms to Clinical Applications.” Biomedical Research International. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/8584136
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Totally Terrific Tea

Totally Terrific Tea

Can anyone beat the inexpensive, almost calorie-free, disease-preventing beverage called tea? Doubtful. Tea really is awesome, and research suggests the following reasons why:

  • Its tannins provide anti-viral activity.
  • Polyphenols in tea help strengthen resistance to and perhaps help fight infections including dysentery and chronic hepatitis.
  • Fluoride and other chemicals in tea can help prevent cavities from forming by keeping bacteria from sticking to teeth and decreasing bacterial acid production. It also lowers the chances of gum disease developing.
  • Their flavonoid polyphenols enhance bone-mineral density. This benefit is strongest among those who consistently drink tea for more than ten years.
  • Tea’s catechin (a type of flavonoid) is believed to strengthen capillaries. They also lower the LDL (bad) cholesterol level and help keep plaque from forming on the lining of arteries.
  • Catechins also have cancer-fighting properties.
  • The phenols in tea are powerful antioxidants – chemicals that counteract the oxygen-free radicals that cause so many diseases. This is one way they may prevent some types of cancer such as gastrointestinal and lung cancers.

Another way that phenols may decrease cancer risk is by preventing sodium nitrite and nitrate (found in cured meats like bacon) from combining with amines to form the powerful group of carcinogens called nitrosamines. Amines are common chemicals so this is no small threat to health. While vitamins C and E can prevent nitrosamine formation, the polyphenols in tea and coffee can also provide this protection and in amounts they are normally consumed.

To have a significant decrease in cancer risk, it may be necessary to drink as much as four cups a day of tea. The caffeine level is less than with coffee; how long it’s steeped affects that.

If you’re ready to increase your consumption of tea, keep in mind:

  • Brewed tea has more health benefits than instant tea
  • Steep tea at least three if not five minutes; don’t drink it when it’s very hot
  • Try to drink organic tea because tea may be sprayed with pesticides
  • Probable tea benefits are from black, green, white and oolong tea – herbal teas don’t contain all the phytochemicals discussed in this article
  • Green tea has the most benefits, decaffeinated has fewer
  • Tea can decrease absorption of iron from plant and it can worsen ulcers.
  • This article is not meant to replace the care of your health care provider.

Super Star Spinach

Super Star Spinach

Spinach is not only listed as one of the super foods in Dr. Steven Pratt’s SuperFoods Rx (also by Kathy Matthews, NY, NY, 2004), he considers it so rich in so many important nutrients, it is almost in a class by itself. But before I start singing its praises, I have to add his important note that there are other similar foods that also have many of the same impressive substances.

Spinach Knock-offs

  • Kale
  • Collards
  • Swiss chard
  • Mustard and turnip greens
  • Bok choy
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Orange bell peppers (yes, that struck me as a pretty distant relative too)

 

On to the resume for these super stars (using spinach as the proto-type)

  • The carotenoids lutein, zeaxanthin (both associated with lower macular degeneration and cataract rates), and beta-carotene
  • The antioxidants glutathione (protects DNA), alpha lipoic acid (anti-aging nutrient), vitamin C, and vitamin E
  • Vitamin K (important for blood clotting and thus to be avoided if taking warfarin (Coumadin) a blood thinner)
  • Coenzyme Q10 (needed for cell energy production)
  • B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, B6, and folate (cancer fighter)
  • Chlorophyll (a potential cancer fighter), Polyphenols, Betaine (may help lower arterial disease risk)
  • Plant-derived omega-3 fatty acids

 

Which is better, raw or cooked spinach? There are benefits to each. Cooked spinach makes the carotenoids more available and increases lutein, but decreases the vitamin C and folate. So, it is probably best to consume raw and cooked spinach each day. Also, adding olive oil, nuts or avocado to cooked spinach will increase the carotenoid absorption.

One more note about the “knock off” vegetables. Kale, as noted in Super Foods by Tonia Reinhard (Buffalo, NY:  Firefly Books, 2014) has more than twice the level of antioxidants compared with other leafy greens. Okay kale, you’ve got my vote, and a place of prominence in my garden.

Garlic and Onions and Leeks, Oh my!

Garlic and Onions and Leeks, Oh my!

It isn’t fair to stereotype these wonderful foods as doing nothing more that causing bad breath. There is so much more to these foods than that. Oh, there are more beautiful and more tasty foods out there, but do they really deliver the nutrients as well as this root-based vegetable family? With 1,200 onion varieties in the world, I guess it isn’t such a small family.

Onions are especially valued for their quercetin. This is a powerful antioxidant, rendering harmful compounds unable to cause their damage to human cells. This is why they help our body fight cancer. Quercetin has also been found helpful in lessening allergy symptoms. Onions possess other nutrients such as vitamin C, B6, potassium and manganese.

Research has also uncovered that onions may help alleviate the symptoms of upper respiratory infections. Lowering the risk of osteoporosis is another possible benefit from onions. If the strong flavor of onions decreases your intake of onions, you’ll be relieved to learn that cooking does not affect the flavonoid (including quercetin) or phenol compounds in these wonderful vegetables.

Leeks are related to onions and wonderful too. They are also high in the flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol, making them good antioxidant additions to the diet. They are also high in vitamin C and K, as well as manganese.

Garlic is just plain a superstar. It too is high in manganese, and a good source of vitamin C and vitamin B6. It also contains phytochemicals (chemicals that come from plants) and some of the benefits aren’t available until the garlic is crushed and allowed to sit for ten minutes before being eaten. Garlic also has strong antimicrobial properties, helping to kill bacteria, viruses and even fungi and parasites! Its anti-inflammatory effect makes it a potential aid in treating asthma and allergies. As if that isn’t enough, it can help lower blood pressure and decrease blood clot formation.

All three of these root vegetables (or are they herbs?) have been linked to cholesterol lowering as well. If you add that to the other vitamins in them, and consider their very low calorie content, surely they’ll start to look pretty beautiful. If you like to garden, all three are easy to grow as well. Enjoy these white roots and add all three to your diet on a regular basis.

References:  Tonia Reinhard, Super Foods, the Healthiest Foods on the Planet, 2nd edition. New York:  Firefly Books, 2014.

Dr. Don Colbert, Eat this and Live!  Lake Mary, FL:  Siloam, A Strang Company, 2009.

This information is not intended to replace the care of your Primary Care Provider.