Antioxidants and Free Radicals: What exactly are they and how do they impact your health?

Antioxidants. I recommend them for many of my patients, and the word is all abuzz in health-media, but what does it really mean? What are these all-powerful Antioxidants that people are supposed to gain so much benefit from? Why do you need them, what do they do, and where can you get them from?

In order to understand Antioxidants, you first have to know what Free Radicals are.

  • Free radicals are reactive elements that remove electrons from compounds they come in contact with. They are formed in our bodies in a number of ways:

  • Through the normal energy producing metabolic pathways that occur in our bodies every day

  • From physical stress (good and bad) and trauma

  • Via exposure to environmental toxins (smoke, chemicals, industrial pollutants, X-Rays and other radiation sources, etc)

  • From ingestion of unhealthy, rancid and/or fried oils, food chemicals and preservatives, and excessively refined/processed foods

  • Due to emotional stress, especially that which is dealt with poorly or incompletely

  • Free radicals are molecules that are themselves missing an electron, making them very unstable. In order to become more stable they steal electrons from neighboring molecules, making them unstable and causing a cascade of free-radical-formation.

  • When kept minimal and in check and, this is easily dealt with by our bodies, and can even help with natural immunological defense for example in combating bacteria and viruses, destroying waste products, and in the neutralization of harmful toxins.

  • If however this gets out of control, it can become a very inflammatory, unhealthy process that causes cellular and tissue damage, ultimately contributing to accelerated aging and the development of degenerative diseases. This can manifest in pathologies like atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and cardiovascular disease, arthritis, diabetes and even many types of cancer, to name just a few.

So how do we ensure this process is kept “in check”? In come the Antioxidants.

  • Antioxidants are naturally occurring substances present in many of our foods. They act as scavengers of free radicals, meaning they find them and neutralize them by providing them with that “missing electron” at no cost to themselves. This makes the previously unstable free radicals stable and therefore harmless (they can no longer steal electrons from other molecules) so they can be properly eliminated from the body.

  • So where do they come from and how can you get them? It so happens that Antioxidants are plentiful in the majority of fresh plant foods, especially brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, nuts, green tea and some spices (see below for your best options). Some of the powerful antioxidants worth mentioning, along with the foods containing high levels of them include:

  • Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C): Protects our bodies by enhancing the immune system, preventing cancerous cellular changes and regenerating other Antioxidants like Vitamin E!

  • Fruits: Berries, Tropical Fruit (kiwi, papaya, mango), Citrus Fruit (like grapefruit and oranges)

  • Vegetables: Broccoli, Spinach, Peppers, Brussel Sprouts and Potatoes

  • Selenium: Besides protecting against cellular damage and helping prevent chronic diseases and cancer, also plays a role in the health of your Thyroid Gland.

  • Nuts: particularly Brazil Nuts

  • Beans including Lentils and Soy beans

  • Fish like Tilapia, Cod, Salmon, Haddock and shellfish

  • Meat and Eggs

  • Vitamin E: Protects the skin from sun damage and can help protect against Alzheimer’s Disease, some cancers (notably prostate), liver diseases, and helps maintain eye health (reducing the risk glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts)

  • Nuts and seeds: like almond, walnut and sunflower

  • Avocados and cooked greens (spinach and Swiss chard)

  • Whole Grains, notably Wheat germ

  • Fish: especially Salmon, Halibut, Herring and Mackerel

  • Caroteninoids: Linked to reduced cancer rates (particularly skin, cervix and gastrointestinal).

  • Vegetables: Tomatoes, Coloured Peppers and Carrots (especially cooked), Winter squash

  • Leafy greens: Spinach and Kale, Parsley and Cilantro

  • Flavonoids/Bioflavenoids: Work together with Vitamin C to help moderate your body’s response to allergens, help combat viruses, protect against cancerous cellular changes and help deal with environmental stressors (smoke, pollution, radiation, etc) and inflammatory processes.

  • Green & White teas

  • Fruit: Berries, Apples, Citrus Fruits and Red Grapes

  • Onions and Garlic

  • Dark Chocolate & Cocoa

  • Red Wine

  • Ubiquinol (Coenzyme Q10): provides energy to your muscle cells, particularly those of your heart thus slowing the development of heart disease.

How do you know you’re getting enough?

  • It makes sense then that a diet rich in Antioxidants would contribute to improved overall health and ultimately a longer, healthier lifespan!

  • By ensuring you’re getting the recommended 7-10 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables per day (2-3 fruit and the rest vegetables and greens), you’re doing a good job of keeping up your Antioxidant status thus vastly improving your overall health and longevity. If you’re not there yet, bump up your intake with a few of these suggestions:

  • Breakfast: Add berries to yogurt or a smoothie and then sprinkle with freshly chopped nuts. Drink green tea instead of coffee.

  • Snack: Toss together apples, blueberries, kiwi, mango and grapefruit for a delicious fruit salad.

  • Chop up an avocado and add to salads, sandwiches and wraps, smoothies or make guacamole.

  • Make a delicious stir-fry with broccoli, carrots and red and yellow peppers.

  • Dessert: For that well-deserved treat, enjoy a square of Dark Chocolate (70% or more)!

Here’s a list of the 20 most antioxidant-rich foods (according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry)

Food (Serving Size) - Antioxidant Capacity per Serving

1) Small red beans, dried (1/2 cup) - 13727

2) Wild blueberries (1 cup) - 13427

3) Red kidney beans, dried (1/2 cup) - 13259

4) Pinto beans (1/2 cup) - 11864

5) Blueberries, cultivated (1 cup) - 9019

6) Cranberries (1 cup) - 8983

7) Artichoke hearts, cooked (1 cup) - 7904

8) Blackberries (1 cup) - 7701

9) Dried prunes (1/2 cup) - 7291

10) Raspberries (1 cup) - 6058

11) Strawberries (1 cup) - 5938

12) Red delicious apple (One Medium) - 5900

13) Granny Smith apple (One Medium

) - 5381

14) Pecans (1 ounce) - 5095

15) Sweet cherries (1 cup) - 4873

16) Black plum (One) - 4844

17) Russet potato, cooked (One Medium) - 4649

18) Black beans, cooked (1/2 cup) - 4181

19) Plum (One) - 4118

20) Gala apple (One, Medium) - 3903

As you can see - getting enough is easy by just incorporating sufficient (ideally 7-10 servings) of Fruits & Vegis in you diet every day!

In Health,

Dr Katarine Holewa, ND

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