Antioxidants, Oxidative Stress, and Why It Matters

Buckle up, friends. This is going to get nerdy, but you need it.

For years I kept hearing about how great foods are with antioxidants without actually knowing what an antioxidant was or why I was supposed to eat them. I just knew they were good for some reason and science said I was supposed to eat them. Then, one day curiosity took over and I started doing some research and was pretty blown away. Consider my life changed and consider me an obsessive consumer of antioxidants!

In order to understand what antioxidants are and why they matter, you need to understand what oxidative stress is and what it’s currently doing to your body.

Oxidative Stress and Free Radicals

If you passed high school chemistry, which I really hope you did, then you know what a molecule is. Certain unstable molecules have atoms whose electrons aren’t paired up properly (they can’t handle being single), sending them on a wild goose chase to pair up with other molecules to form zombie molecules which then turn and attack your body.

A better definition is: “A free radical can be defined as any molecular species capable of independent existence that contains an unpaired electron in an atomic orbital. The presence of an unpaired electron results in certain common properties that are shared by most radicals. Many radicals are unstable and highly reactive. They can either donate an electron to or accept an electron from other molecules, therefore behaving as oxidants or reductants.” Once this zombie-oxygenated molecule takes over, it wreaks havoc on different parts of your body at the cellular level. There are LOTS of different kinds of free radical molecules and they have different specialties: some go into your cells and break up the strands of your DNA, some attack your lipids or proteins, some cause your cells to die too quickly or proliferate too quickly.

If your body doesn’t have enough antioxidants to combat these little devils, you go into what is known as oxidative stress. This leads to accelerated aging and diseases like cancer (cells that proliferate too quickly), Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis as well as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and asthma, just to name a few. If free radicals pair up with free metals in your body, then they create a dynamic duo from hell and cause damage to the body to accelerate.

Where do these horrible little molecules come from?

A few are produced from within your body as a natural by-product of certain cellular functions. The bulk of free radicals, however, come from outside the body:

  • Smoking
  • Environmental pollutants
  • Excess alcohol consumption
  • Heavy metals
  • Pesticides
  • Fried foods
  • Processed Meats (deli meat, hot dogs, bacon, etc)
  • Excess Sun Exposure

Some of these sources of free radicals are unavoidable (sadly, the world we live in makes avoiding environmental pollutants and pesticide exposure virtually impossible), but the rest you have some control over.

Antioxidants

Enter our heroes, the antioxidants. These stable little molecules are the fighting force sent out by your body to find and destroy (or at least neutralize) the disease causing free radicals. They stop the chain reactions that free radicals start which result in DNA death and cellular damage that lead to aging and disease. Thankfully, there are as many antioxidants as there are different types of free radicals. Each antioxidant fights a specific kind of free radical, and different antioxidants are absorbed at different levels by your body. So some are better loved by your cells than others. Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Beta Carotene are all examples of antioxidants that you’re probably familiar with.

Where do we find antioxidants?

Until around age 27, your body makes its own antioxidants (in decreasing amounts year by year). After that, the body relies totally on the antioxidants provided by the food you eat (which is why aging seems to speed up in your 30s). Which foods? Healthy, plant sourced foods! Natural color (So, not sprinkles or fruit loops. Food dye does not count. I have actually had someone ask me this, sadly) present in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes usually indicate the presence of certain antioxidants and phytonutrients that your body needs to fight off disease and thrive. If you read my post on eating the rainbow, you should remember this fact. If the food on your plate is consistently beige, brown, or white I can guarantee you aren’t getting the proper amount of food-sourced antioxidants (more easily used and absorbed by your body than supplemental antioxidants) that you need to combat oxidative stress (unless you’re eating nothing but mushrooms, burdock and cauliflower, which I HIGHLY doubt!). Here’s a by-no-means-exhaustive list of some foods very high in antioxidants in no particular order:

  • Goji berries
  • Blueberries
  • Carrots
  • Walnuts and pecans
  • Mushrooms
  • Cilantro
  • Blackberries
  • Bell peppers (each color pepper will have a different antioxidant profile based on the colors present)
  • Cacao (in its raw form, boil it down and add butter and sugar and it’s chocolate but not nearly as healthy as its original form)
  • Dragon fruit
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Ginger
  • Turmeric

carrot-kale-walnuts-tomatoes.jpgThis list could seriously go on forever. The key is variety! Simply noshing on a handful of blueberries every now and again is not going to do it. Remember that there are different kinds of free radicals and different kinds of antioxidants; so relying on one source to combat oxidative stress is not enough.  Also of note, these precious little molecules are pretty sensitive to heat, so boiling them to death, frying them, or putting them in some kind of cobbler is either going to destroy them or reduce their potency.  Eating fresh fruits and veggies in a state closest to their original form will ensure you get the most bang for your buck!

How do I avoid aging and disease from free radicals?

In order to keep the free radicals in your body from creating disease and in order to slow down the aging process you first need to eliminate the sources of free radicals that may be present in your life.

Do you smoke? By all that you hold dear, please I beg you: stop. Find whatever way you possibly can to quit. It’s the worst thing you can do for your health on so many levels. You’re literally killing yourself slowly.

If you eat processed meats like hot dogs or bacon, these need to be eliminated from your diet completely. They are listed as a Class 1 Carcinogen and are just as likely to cause cancer (remember what happens when you have too many free radicals running around?) as smoking.

Limit your alcohol consumption to just a few drinks per week or less. Try and purchase organic rather than conventionally farmed produce to reduce your exposure to pesticides. Limit your time in the sun to 30 minutes per day depending on your ethinicity (some sun exposure is crucial for your body to process Vitamin D correctly, so don’t avoid completely). Avoid fried or fatty processed foods.

Add antioxidant rich foods into your diet! Drop fad diets from your life. They do your body more harm than good in the end. Choose instead to change the way you eat completely. Adding in the foods that are going to greatly benefit your body on a number of levels is going to lead to you feeling young, clean, and energetic!  It’s a slow and steady process, but with mindful decisions and patience with yourself, you will find yourself making the changes you need to stay young and healthy!

Here’s to eating more color, friends!

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