What Antioxidants Do for You
Simply put, antioxidants are substances that reduce damage caused by free radicals, which are rogue molecules that can harm your health. Getting proper levels of antioxidants is a very simple step you can take to stay healthy.
Everyone can benefit from a diet rich in antioxidants. But, I’m sorry to say, most people are missing out on these powerful, health-enhancing substances. And I’d like that to change, especially with my readers and patients.
Here’s a good illustration of why antioxidants are indispensable to good health. Virginia, a kindergarten teacher, was in my office for her annual check-up. Her one health issue was that she had used up all of her sick days because she kept coming down with colds during the school year. “One child comes in sick, then we all get it. My immune system just doesn’t seem up to the task.”
When I asked which vitamins she took, Virginia looked surprised. “None! I’ve seen those stories on the news about how all you get from vitamins is expensive urine. I’ve lived this long without vitamins, and I don’t think they’ll help me now.”
Please keep in mind that a 60-second (or less) news story simply cannot do a decent job of explaining scientific research. Reporters want to get your attention, so they highlight dramatic conclusions that often aren’t accurate. When you hear stories like this, it’s always a good idea to get a second — and sometimes third — opinion from an informed source.
As a practicing medical doctor, I believe vitamins work, I give them to my own family and take them myself.
In fact, a few years ago, a survey revealed that if all adults simply took one multivitamin each day, Americans could save $1.6 billion in health care costs by reducing the risk of heart disease and improving immune system functions. Saving money would be nice, but think of all the lives that could be saved, too, along with the emotional toll on family members and friends.
So, Virginia had to play student, while I educated her on the importance of supplements, particularly antioxidants. Her repeated illnesses were like a red flag warning that her immune system needed help. As inconvenient as colds can be, there are much more serious consequences that usually arise from a lack of antioxidants, including heart disease, cancer, and other serious conditions.
How Free Radicals Harm Your Health
Imagine a couples’ dance where everyone has a partner except for one wild-eyed fellow. Instead of finding a lady friend, the lone stranger behaves very badly, stealing partners from the other dancers. He not only spoils their dances, but he ruins the evening, as well.
This is a super simplified version of what free radicals do in the body. In basic terms, a free radical scavenger is an unstable molecule or group of molecules that’s missing an electron. Like tiny versions of a single guy at a couples’ dance, free radicals try to hook up with other cells, damaging or destroying them in the process. As soon as a free radical steals a molecule (dance partner) to stabilize itself, the victim of the theft is transformed into a rogue molecule, looking to steal a stabilizing molecule, and on it goes.
Where do free radicals come from? Everywhere! From eating, breathing, and living in a world filled with toxic chemicals and pollution, we can’t escape exposure to free radicals. Some of these substances are actually beneficial, but the free radicals we are concerned with are those that damage healthy cells. We want to find them “dance partners” before they cause errors in the genetic messages in our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the blueprint that governs cell behavior). Otherwise, when one of these bad-boy free radical molecules binds with a healthy cell, it interferes with the cell’s ability to function. All of these damaged molecules eventually add up to an illness of one sort or another.
The perfect dance partners for free radicals are substances known as antioxidants. Fortunately, our bodies produce some antioxidant enzymes that pair up with free radicals to prevent damage. At one time, when there were fewer pollutants and toxic substances in the world and our food supply wasn’t as compromised as it is now, we could get by with just the free radical fighters our bodies manufacture. But nowadays, we need more. Much more.
The best way to prevent free radicals from harming your health is by supplying the body with plenty of antioxidants from food and supplements. The antioxidants absorb into free radicals and render them harmless. In other words, everyone has a dance partner, and a good time can be had by all. It’s a goal we can all achieve with a little effort. Here are some ideas on how to do that.
Put a Palette of Color on Your Plate
If names like lycopene, resveratrol, lutein, bromelain, and zeaxanthin sound familiar, it’s because these compounds and others like them are hot topics in medical research these days. Phytonutrients, as these substances are called, have several things in common. They are outstanding antioxidants, for example, and all come from fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes, teas, and beans. Each class of phytonutrients corresponds to a color found in foods containing it. So, for example, lycopene is found in red foods like tomatoes, watermelon, and red peppers.
The phytonutrients in each color group perform different tasks in the body. Lycopene, for instance, is linked to a healthy prostate, while lutein, found in various types of leafy greens, avocados, and green peas, benefits eye health.
Phytonutrients are one reason why we are encouraged to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily. These substances have exceptional health benefits, and each month it seems new research uncovers even more reasons to consume colorful produce at every opportunity. At mealtime, you want to include as many differently colored fruits and veggies as possible. That way, you’ll be getting a rainbow of free radical-fighting nutrients, a gift to you from Mother Nature!
The key to putting phytonutrient antioxidants to work for you is variety. When planning meals and shopping, it helps to think outside the box. Most of us are fond of a couple vegetables, and we tend to ignore others. But take a look at the list that follows and see what you’re missing. This list includes only one type of phytonutrient, known as flavonoids. Based on research at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), here are the twenty foods with the highest flavonoid content:
USDA’s List of Top 20 Flavonoid-Rich Foods:
- Small red beans (dried)
- Wild blueberries
- Red kidney beans
- Pinto beans
- Blueberries (cultivated)
- Artichokes (cooked)
- Red Delicious apples
- Granny Smith apples
- Sweet cherries
- Black plums
- Russet potatoes (cooked)
- Black beans (dried)
- Gala apples
That’s a remarkable list, with lots of different colors and plenty of variety. So, if your vegetable intake consists of iceberg lettuce, French fries, and ketchup, look at all of the valuable nutrition you’re missing out on. As I told Virginia, if you just take a high-quality multi-vitamin and eat a diet rich in phytonutrients, you’ll be much better off than you are now.
One last suggestion — and I think you’ll like this one: dark chocolate is an excellent source of antioxidants. So, when you’re craving something chocolatey, one small bite of organic dark chocolate (not milk chocolate) can put that craving to rest, while also providing some good-for-you nutrients.
Green tea is an antioxidant powerhouse, loaded with substances that can protect us from everything from cancer to cardiovascular disease. Green tea also shields our DNA, the instructions that direct our cells, from being damaged.
If you find green tea bitter, try brewing it in cooler water (175 degrees) for two to three minutes. There are also fruit and spice-enhanced green teas that you may enjoy. Supplements containing green tea extracts are available, as well.
Rooibos (ROY-bos) tea, from a South African shrub, is not a true tea, but it is a great source of antioxidants that are not found in other teas. And there’s more good news: rooibos tea also contains important minerals, and it’s caffeine-free, so you can drink it anytime of day or night. Adding a milk substitute, like almond milk, or a bit of organic milk from pastured cows enhances the slightly sweet, nutty flavor.
Supplements To Reduce Free Radicals
Eating right is so important that I put it at the top of my patients’ instructions. But it’s also a good idea to support your immune system with a variety of antioxidants. Products containing a blend of vegetable-based nutrients are among my favorites, and here are a few others:
In last week’s issue on inflammation, I discussed vitamin C, and how important it is to our health. Now, I’d like to talk a bit about an antioxidant called alpha-lipoic acid. Known for its ability to revitalize both vitamins C and E (another remarkable antioxidant) so they stay in the body longer, alpha-lipoic acid also helps manage blood sugar and insulin while giving liver detoxification a boost.
Organic meats and green leafy vegetables contain very small amounts of alpha-lipoic acid, but I recommend supplements to get therapeutic doses of 600 to 1,200 mg daily.
An extract of the spice turmeric, curcumin was also mentioned in last week’s newsletter. But, since it’s shaping up as a nutrition superstar, I’m bringing it up again. Preliminary studies show that curcumin has the potential to treat inflammation, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and several types of cancer. Meanwhile, there is no doubt about curcumin’s outstanding antioxidant abilities, which have been shown to support a healthy heart and colon, as well as lower the risk of neurodegenerative disorders. I suggest a daily dose of 500 mg.
Melatonin has profound antioxidant abilities, as dozens of studies have shown. It’s also being investigated for treating everything from asthma and migraines to cancer and high blood pressure. And, of course, anyone with sleep problems can benefit from melatonin’s ability to support restorative sleep.
Melatonin is found in a few foods, like tart cherries, walnuts, and pineapple. But the quantities are too small to provide much benefit. For that, supplements are recommended. A dose of two mg for women and three mg for men each night before bedtime is typical.
A substance found in grape juice, red wine, peanuts, and the skin of red grapes, resveratrol is an impressive antioxidant that made headlines a few years ago when it was found to extend lifespan in lab animals.
Unfortunately, getting a healthy dose of resveratrol from red wine or grape juice would require drinking more of either one than is humanly possible. As supplements, I recommend a dose of 250 mg daily.
Nature has provided us with a veritable first-aid kit of powerful antioxidants that can protect us from all sorts of damaging elements. And as Virginia discovered, there’s nothing like a positive firsthand experience to counteract negative news about supplements.
“I’ve only had one cold so far this school year,” she told me recently, “and that’s a monumental improvement! Now, all the other teachers are coming to me for advice on what supplements to take so they don’t get sick. So, I tell them the same thing you told me — antioxidants, antioxidants, antioxidants!”
Last Updated: June 21, 2021
Originally Published: February 27, 2012