Antioxidant this, antioxidant that –  we’re bombarded with information on the benefits of these anti-ageing superheroes all the time, but what exactly are they, what do they do, do we really need them and what are the best antioxidant rich foods?

So many questions, so little attention span :-0

In my article Don’t Eat Yourself Old I named and shamed some of those age-accelerating foods that you should be excluding from your diet and promised to muse over all the good antioxidant stuff that you should be incorporating in order to delay the signs of ageing and protect yourself against ill health, so here goes!

First the science bit, which is important if you want to broaden your understanding about some of that healthy stuff we’re always being advised to include in our diet and lifestyle in order to keep us youthful and healthy…

Free radicals and oxidative stress

  • Free radicals are a type of a highly reactive molecule (or metabolite) that is naturally produced by your body as a result of normal metabolism and energy production.

  • They are your natural biological response to environmental toxins like cigarette smoke, sunlight, chemicals, cosmic and manmade radiation, and are even a key feature of pharmaceutical drugs.

  • Your body also produces free radicals when you exercise and when you have inflammation anywhere in your body.

  • Free radical molecules are missing one or more electrons, and this missing electron is responsible for biological oxidation, which is when the the incomplete molecules aggressively attack other molecules in order to replace their missing parts.

  • This reaction is called “oxidation”, and oxidation is known as “biological rusting”, an effect caused by too much oxygen in your tissues – rather like some metals, such as silver, that turn black due to oxidisation when left exposed to oxygen for long periods.

  • These free radicals then steal electrons from the proteins in your body, which badly damages your DNA and other cell structures.

  • If your body doesn’t receive adequate antioxidant protection from them, the free radicals can create a ‘snowballing effect’ – as molecules steal from one another, each one becomes a new free radical, leaving a trail of biological carnage :-0

  • Free radicals travel throughout the body, damaging healthy living cells and have been linked to over 60 different diseases, including cancer, cataracts, Parkinsons disease, Alzheimers disease and heart disease.

  • Free radicals come from a wide variety of sources and are almost impossible to avoid.

So what do the Antioxidants do?

  • Antioxidants are molecules that bind the free radicals in your body, not only reparing them, but also preventing them from doing further damage – they are nature’s way of providing your cells with adequate defence against free radical attack!

  • This fight against the free radicals controls how fast you age and plays a significant role in our general health.

  • As well as helping to prevent diseases such as cancer and heart disease, antioxidants have also been found to be beneficial in reducing cholesterol levels and increasing energy and stamina.

  • Your body naturally circulates various antioxidant-rich nutrients within itself, and also manufactures antioxidant enzymes in order to control the ‘snowballing’ free radicals, but your body’s natural antioxidant production can decline as you age.

Are all antioxidants the same?

No is the short answer. There are many different types of antioxidants, from fat soluble to water soluble; enzymatic to non enzymatic; small molecule to large protein, to name but a few, and you need a wide array of them for optimal benefit!

But fear not, given that you may already be dropping off with all this science talk, I won’t be delving into each of these individually, merely musing over the ones that you should be incorporating into your diet and providing you tips on how you can lessen your exposure to environmental oxidative stress 🙂

Which ones do I need?

As a guide, the following, whilst not exhaustive, is a list of different kinds of antioxidants and some foods that are high in each…

• Allium sulphur compounds: Leeks, onions, garlic 
• Anthocyanins: Aubergine/eggplant, grapes, berries, cherries 
• Beta carotene: Pumpkin, mangoes, apricots, carrots, spinach, parsley
• Catechins: Red wine, tea 
• Copper: Seafood, lean meat, milk, nuts, legumes
• Cryptoxanthins: Red peppers, pumpkin, mangoes
• Flavonoids: Tea, green tea, red wine, citrus fruits, onion, apples 
• Indoles: Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower
• Lignans: Sesame seeds, bran, whole grains, vegetables 
• Lutein: Corn, leafy greens (such as spinach, cavolo nero, chard)
• Lycopene: Tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon
• Manganese: Seafood, lean meat, milk, nuts 
• Polyphenols: Berries, sweet potatoes, curcumin, pomegranate, cacao, thyme, oregano
• Selenium: Seafood, offal, lean meat, whole grains 
• Vitamin C: Oranges, berries, kiwi fruit, mangoes, cherries, broccoli, spinach, peppers 
• Vitamin E: Vegetable oils, nuts, avocados, seeds, whole grains
• Zinc: Seafood, lean meat, milk, nuts 
• Zoochemicals: Lean red meat, offal, fish


How much do I need to consume?

You’ve probably heard of the “five a day” rule where the experts recommend five portions of a broad mix of both fruit and vegetables per day. Well, whilst antioxidants have been proven to be beneficial to our health, there is still more research required in order to determine exactly how much antioxidant-rich food you need to consume per day in order to optimise the benefits. The “five a day” rule is a good place to start though, but between five and ten is better, and make sure you include wholegrains and antioxidant drinks such as red wine and green tea too. Oooo and don’t forget the good quality dark (70% or higher) chocolate 🙂

Our diet and not supplements should be our primary source of antioxidants and, if your “five to ten a day” is balanced, unprocessed, high-quality, raw and organic foods, your body will acquire all the essential nutrients and antioxidants it requires in order to achieve or maintain optimal health.

However, you can always seek the advice of a qualified nutritionist or health food expert if you feel you need additional support or advice.

What about those environmental stresses?

So now we’ve dealt with the nutritional side, what of those environmental toxins that can cause oxidative stress? Again, whilst not exhaustive, this list provides some guidance as to what you can do to limit some of those external causes of free radical formation…

  • Exercise in moderation (love this one 😉)

  • Manage stress effectively

  • Quit smoking

  • Avoid air and water pollution wherever possible (Michael Jackson may have been on to something in his plastic bubble!)

  • Protect yourself from UVA/UVB rays

  • Take regular breaks from sources of electromagnetic radiation – computers, mobile phones, TV’s etc (and 3, 2, 1, back in the real world…)

  • Be sure to protect your skin with antioxidant goodness too – my blog post about the ingredients you should be incorporating into your skincare covers this very topic – fancy that!

  • Get enough sleep – I covered the perils of sleep debt in my blog post Are You In Sleep Debt – six to eight hours per night seems to be the optimal amount for adults (I’m lucky if I manage six to eight minutes!)

So there you have it – my musings on antioxidants – now go and have yourself a glass of red wine and some chocolate; you’ve earned it if you got to the end of this post 😉

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