Antioxidants - You know you need them - but why?

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The term “antioxidants” is something you hear a lot, but do you really understand what antioxidants are and why they are so important?

In this article, you'll discover why antioxidants help your health and well-being, especially as you age.

To fully understand the benefits of them, you must first understand the concept of free radicals.

The theory of free radicals

Scientists have put forward many theories about how we age. However, the most logical and accepted theory is the free radical theory.

You probably think of oxygen as the source of life itself. But you may not know that oxygen is not always healthy. It can cause problems through a process known as oxidation.

Maybe you learned in biology class at school that living organisms use oxygen to generate energy - and that's true. But cells also need to be able to simultaneously protect themselves from oxygen while benefiting from it. That's why cells break down nutrients gradually and release tiny amounts of energy in the process.

Unfortunately, microscopic free radicals become an inevitable side effect when cells use oxygen to obtain nutrients.

Free radicals are molecules or atoms with unpaired electrons in the outer orbits of their molecular structures. They are very reactive as they constantly try to steal electrons from their neighboring molecules.

It is precisely this loss of electrons that affects healthy cells, DNA and mitochondria - the small power plants that supply cells with energy.

During cellular metabolism or energy production, about 3% of energy is released as free radicals.

Some free radicals help with cell function, but many are neutralized by special antioxidants in the cell.

  • The production of these can be increased by:
  • excessive inflammatory reaction
  • excessive movement
  • Thyroid problems
  • UV radiation (e.g. from the sun)
  • Certain chemicals, additives and toxins (smoking, exhaust fumes)

Item #1 on the list above - inflammatory response - is the most important factor.

Unbalanced inflammatory response and free radicals

Inflammation is important for the body's defenses, to heal tissue injuries and promote health.

However, many people suffer from an unbalanced inflammatory response that drags on for years and does not promote overall health.

Antioxidants as saviors in times of need

Of course, as we age, our DNA is constantly bombarded by free radical molecules.

Your body contains a multi-layered system called the antioxidant network. In every cell there is a group of antioxidant enzymes whose sole purpose is to fight pesky free radicals.

Food is an important part of our antioxidant system. Nutritious foods contain antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins A, C, E, D, K. There are also antioxidant minerals such as magnesium, zinc, selenium, manganese and chromium. Then there are the antioxidant phytochemicals, which are plant substances that are mainly found in fruits and vegetables.

Foods contain many different forms of antioxidants. Eating a variety of nutrient-dense vegetables is necessary because free radicals work in specific cellular areas. Some work in fatty areas such as the cell membrane. Others act in more watery parts such as the cellular cytoplasm.

Research has shown that all of these antioxidant nutrients work together to promote health. A common mistake people make when taking antioxidants is assuming that a single antioxidant nutrient is enough. A combination of antioxidants used together is significantly more effective than when used alone. This is known as a synergistic effect.

Tips for increasing your antioxidant intake

Eat 5-10 servings of fresh vegetables and some fruits every day. Choose nutrient-dense vegetables such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, greens and onions. Since fruit contains a lot of sugar, eat it in moderation and avoid sweetened fruit juices. Eating these healthy vegetables and moderate amounts of fruit will provide you with lots of vitamins, minerals and powerful antioxidant flavonoids.

Consume more extra-virgin olive oil. This oil contains both powerful antioxidants and healthy fat. Use it on a salad with balsamic vinegar, or mix it with other foods. The heart-healthy Mediterranean diet places an emphasis on olive oil.

Protect yourself from excessive stress. Too much stress affects the production of free radicals, especially in the brain. Spend time in nature, learn relaxation techniques, hang out with your family, and find other ways to reduce your daily stress levels.

Use antioxidant supplements for added benefit. As you have seen, it is good to consume a wide range of antioxidant vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. A quality multivitamin should contain a number of important antioxidants. There are also other important antioxidant phytochemicals, which are plant compounds found primarily in fruits and vegetables. According to a review published in the journal Molecules, the two main types of antioxidant phytochemicals are polyphenols and carotenoids. Resveratrol, for example, is a polyphenol antioxidant that occurs naturally in grapes, red wine and some berries. Studies have shown that resveratrol supports a healthy inflammatory response, among other benefits.

Note: This article is not intended as medical advice. For more detailed information, contact your doctor.

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