You’ve probably heard the term “antioxidant”, but you might not be sure what an antioxidant actually does. Or, more to the point, why it even matters. You’ve heard that they’re “good”, and you have no reason to believe differently. Even so, if you’re like most people, you’re probably still not completely sure what antioxidants are in the first place.
If that’s you, you’re not alone. And you’ve come to the right place!
In this article, we’re going to dig a little into antioxidants, the foods and supplements that contain them and the myriad of health benefits they provide. (Spoiler alert: Antioxidants help your skin look better, your cells function better and your brain work more effectively!) (1,2,3,4,5)
Once you truly understand how impressively beneficial they are, you’ll want to make every effort to get plenty of them in your diet, every single day!
So what do antioxidants do, anyway?
The key to understanding what antioxidants do is to look at the prefix of the word: anti. “Anti” is Greek for “against.” Antioxidants are warriors against one of the biggest forces, something called “oxidation” or “oxidative damage.”
To truly appreciate how important antioxidants are, you must first appreciate just how destructive oxidative damage can be to virtually everything we care about in the area of health.
What does oxidative damage look like?
If you want a good visual for what oxidative damage looks like, simply cut an apple into some slices and leave them on a plate outdoors, in the sunlight, for a day or two. They turn brown and disgusting looking—that’s oxidative damage, also known as oxidation.
Oxidation is mainly the work of rogue molecules called “free radicals.” You may remember from high school biology that electrons orbit around atoms in pair-bonded units. They travel together and are basically inseparable. But once in a while, a rogue electron “escapes” from its pair-bond, and starts going a little wild and crazy, looking for a new mate. That rogue electron is now known as a “free radical” and they do a ton of damage: damaging cells, arteries, cholesterol, DNA and—most visibly—your skin.
Free radicals can come from anywhere—toxins in the environment, the air, our food and water, and even from our own body, which, for various reasons, produces a ton of free radicals on a daily basis.
There’s no avoiding free radicals. They’re mostly made from oxygen molecules (which is why the damage they do is called oxidative damage). And unless you can figure out a way to avoid breathing oxygen, you’re just going to have to deal with free radicals.
The question is, how effectively can you combat the damage they do?
And that’s where antioxidants come in.
Antioxidants are able to donate an electron to a marauding free radical looking for a “mate.” In this sense, they are the best weapon we have against oxidative damage. The most famous of the antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E, the minerals zinc and selenium and literally thousands of compounds found in foods.
Plant compounds, called flavanols, found in cocoa and dark chocolate are antioxidants (and frequently anti-inflammatories as well!), as are the wonderful polyphenols found in olives and olive oil, (one of the reasons olive oil is such a beneficial oil, and olive leaf complex is such a powerful supplement). The compound that gives wild salmon their pink color is a potent antioxidant known as astaxanthin. Similarly potent are the flavonoids found in fruits and vegetables, and the catechins found in green tea.
Speaking of fruits and vegetables, they’re among the richest sources of natural antioxidants on the planet. One of the reasons green drinks are so popular is that they pack a massive antioxidant (and anti-inflammatory) wallop into one tasty beverage that contains extracts of foods like broccoli, wheat grass, dandelion, spinach, kale and other antioxidant powerhouses. (Barlean’s Greens—one of the best tasting and highest-quality green drinks I’ve encountered—contains extracts from a range of super-antioxidant botanicals and plants such as spinach, parsley, blueberries, green tea and acai berry. It’s a low-calorie, stevia-sweetened beverage that’s suitable for all diets!)
The Special Case of Vitamin C
One of the many destructive effects of chronic stress is that it eats up your vitamin C stores. (6,7,8) Unlike most mammals, we humans can’t make vitamin C on our own. We also can’t store very much of it—so we need a fairly continuous supply. (That’s another reason I like Barlean’s green drink—sipping on it is like getting a vitamin C infusion!)
Best advice is to find a way that works for you to personally manage the destructive effects of stress, not only on your antioxidant army, but on your overall health and well-being! Get into a ‘stress management’ routine and take it as seriously as your diet and exercise program! Even a few minutes a day of deep breathing breaks can help, as can a walk (outdoors in greenery if possible), some time in the sun, a warm relaxing bath or a Danielle Steele novel!
Whatever stress management “pressure valve” works for you, take the time to discover it—the time will be well spent (file that under “CSC”—Critical Self Care!).
Once you find what relaxes you and nurtures tranquility, use it! It will be well worth it. Chronic stress—no stranger to any of us in these COVID times—is not only a destroyer of vitamin C, it’s a potential destroyer of your overall health, period.
So, while you’re paying attention to your diet, your exercise and your supplements, don’t forget to give some time to developing the ability to exhale, breath deeply, let go of stress (even for a few minutes) and experience some much needed tranquility.
Meanwhile, it wouldn’t hurt to take some good quality antioxidant supplements by sipping on some tasty Barlean’s Greens.
Jonny Bowden is a board-certified nutritionist, a nationally known expert on weight loss, metabolism and health, the best-selling author of 15 books and a member of the Barlean’s Scientific Advisory Board.