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What are antioxidants and why are they good for us?

There’s a lot of talk about the benefits of antioxidants and for good reason. Many studies suggest they protect us from premature aging, heart disease and possibly depression and anxiety!

So what are antioxidants?

You have probably heard of antioxidants but might not know what they are or why you need them. Selenium, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, beta-carotene, and phytochemicals are antioxidants found in plants. Our bodies also make their own antioxidants but the level of intracellular antioxidants depends almost entirely on the food we eat. Antioxidants are compounds found in food and produced in the body that prevent or delay damage to our cells.

Antioxidants are water-soluble or fat-soluble. They reside in parts of our cells that are watery or oily (fat). For example, Vitamin C is water-soluble and is found in the watery-filled compartments of the body. Vitamin E is fat-soluble and can be found in our cells’ lipid-rich (fat-rich) areas, like the cell membrane.

Even though they work in different areas of the body, our antioxidants communicate and support one another. Think of them as good friends or co-workers. Antioxidants work together like a fantastic team that defends against destructive unstable free radicals.

The health benefits

Decades of research suggest people who eat more generous amounts of antioxidant-rich food have increased protection against disease. Part of this protection is related to our antioxidant’s ability to fight free radicals and reduce oxidative stress.

Fight free radicals

Antioxidants help protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals. So, what are free radicals? They are highly reactive, unstable molecules that are trying to become stable. They virtually steal what they do not have to make themselves stable. They attack a molecule that is close by, such as a lipid or protein, and steal an electron. Now the “robbed” molecule becomes a free radical and attacks another nearby molecule creating a chain reaction. All this theft creates damage to our cells and DNA. Enough damage and we end up with premature aging and diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Antioxidants protect our cells and DNA by giving free radicals what they are missing (an electron) without becoming radicals themselves. When Vitamin E donates an electron to a free radical, it helps stop that chain reaction of damage, but now Vitamin E needs a little support to stay active. Vitamin C comes to the rescue and restores Vitamin E to its active state.

We need an abundance of dietary antioxidants to diminish free radical damage. We also want a variety of them. Different antioxidants defend against various types of free radicals.

Reduce oxidative stress

Oxidative stress occurs when we lack balance and it can damage our body and brain. It’s associated with cardiovascular disease (atherosclerosis), cancer, diabetes, age-related macular degeneration, neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease), autoimmune diseases (systemic lupus), mental stress, depression, and memory loss.

Oxidative stress is also associated with inflammation. Inflammation is a key driver in chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and mood disorders like depression.  There appears to be a bidirectional relationship here – oxidative stress increases inflammation, and inflammation increases free radicals leading to oxidative stress.  Antioxidants help reduce inflammation. The body does its best to stop oxidative stress. It will produce an arsenal of antioxidants, but the body’s internal antioxidant system alone is not enough. The diet must be rich in plants to reduce the constant bombardment of free radicals successfully. This will help to reduce your anxiety and depression as well.

Brain health

The loss of neurons due to oxidative stress is linked to the development of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have been examining the effects of antioxidant therapies for their neuroprotective effects. Oxidative stress damages and kills neurons (brain cells).

Several studies have shown an association between neurodegenerative disorders (e.g., Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s diseases, amyotrophic sclerosis) and antioxidant vitamin deficiency. One of these studies found a reduced risk of cognitive decline in people 65 years of age and older when given Vitamin C and/or Vitamin E. A well-respected clinical trial called The Physicians’ Health Study II, gave a placebo or a 50 mg beta-carotene supplement to nearly 6,000 men over 65 years of age. The researchers found cognitive benefits in the men who were supplemented with beta-carotene for at least 15 years.

Support healthy aging

Aging, oxidative stress, and inflammation are closely related. There is a theory called oxi-inflamm-aging that has been proposed. The theory suggests that chronic oxidative stress alters our regulatory systems, such as nervous, endocrine, and immune systems, as we age. Activation of the immune system leads to an inflammatory state, which creates a vicious circle. Chronic oxidative stress and inflammation incite one another and subsequently increase age-related disease and mortality.

Researchers are also looking at cellular aging as the root cause of diseases associated with age, like heart disease and cancer. Scientists can assess cellular aging by measuring telomeres. Many studies have shown an association between shorter telomeres, aging, and poor health.

Antioxidants are compounds that are commonly found in tea and help to protect us from damaging free radicals and oxidative stress. Decades of research suggest a diet full of antioxidant-rich foods protects us from disease. Foods rich in Vitamin E, Vitamin C, beta carotene, selenium, and phytochemicals provide us with antioxidants. A simple strategy to increase your antioxidants is to eat and drink an abundance of colorful plants every day!

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