Found in abundance in nature, antioxidants are vital to our health, yet how do they work to protect us?
Antioxidants are key substances that have the ability to reverse or inhibit ‘oxidation’, a process that creates unstable molecules known as ‘free radicals’, which cause damage and destruction to our body. Imagine a freshly cut apple or avocado turning brown, or a nail becoming rusty. In most instances, it is the process of oxidation causing these changes.
Due to the extensive damage they can cause to our healthy functioning cells, these free radicals need to be neutralised. This is where antioxidants are so important, due to their natural ability to offer protection, stabilising these harmful molecules. This may assist in preventing chronic disease, by preserving healthy cell membranes, proteins, DNA expression and regulating our inflammatory response. Oxidative stress is linked strongly to the development of chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease.1
These days, it is difficult to avoid exposure to a variety of harmful toxins via the air we breathe, chemical based cleaners and cosmetics via our skin, or the food and drink we ingest on a daily basis. In order to protect us from these potential harmful substances, our body must act to defend our cells. It can do this by utilising antioxidants, protecting us against disease and the ageing process by reducing oxidative stress.2
Whilst our own metabolic processes, such as inflammation, can itself create free radicals, it is of particular importance to increase our consumption of antioxidants when exposed to external situations known to further increase oxidative stress, for example:
Regularly consuming burnt/chargrilled foods
Exposure to toxic chemicals, such as vehicle fumes, tobacco smoke, some beauty and household cleaning products
How can we best protect our health defences?
Base your diet on whole foods including a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, alongside adequate good quality protein
Eat organic and/or local produce as much as you can afford
Minimise, or ideally eliminate processed foods
Use natural essential oil based topical skincare and cleaning products
Take regular walks surrounded by nature to breathe fresh air and oxygenate the blood
Include key nutrients in your diet that help support high antioxidant activity, preventing damage to cells and tissues and reduce inflammation:
Vitamin C not only supports our immune cells,3 it may reduce tiredness and fatigue acting as a cofactor for iron absorption and also supporting collagen formation for healthy joints and skin.4
Selenium, naturally found in Brazil nuts, is a critical component of antioxidant enzymes, and also supports the production of glutathione, which is the most potent and versatile antioxidant produced in the body.
Zinc is an antioxidant mineral naturally abundant in animal protein, especially red meat, turkey, oysters, pulses, lentils, nuts, and seeds, such as pumpkin seeds. It is important for the functioning of over 300 enzymes, contributes to normal DNA synthesis and underlies the physiology of every body system.5
Vitamin A, found in oily fish, eggs and dairy produce helps to make our white blood cells more effective at fighting off invaders like bacteria and viruses and in doing so, contribute to the normal functioning of the immune system.6
How to Eat a Rainbow coloured diet, some ideas of antioxidant rich foods/drinks to include in your daily diet:
Brightly coloured breakfast bowls and salads, made using a variety of fruits and vegetables are an ideal way to provide an abundance of natural food based sources of antioxidant nutrients. Aim for 5-7 portions of vegetables and fruit daily, not only to provide a rich source of vitamins, minerals and fibre, but also their rich and colourful plant pigments, with the ability to serve as antioxidants providing cellular defence.
Flavonoids: found in rosehip, bilberry and other berries, also rich in vitamin C, have been shown to support circulation and strengthen capillaries.7
Carotenoids: found in foods such as carrots and sweet potatoes, have antioxidant properties and are best absorbed with a fat containing meal.8
Lycopene: naturally found in tomatoes, spinach, kale, strawberries and cherries has been shown to contribute to prostate health9 and, alongside other carotenoids, protect the skin from damage.10
Betacyanin: found in beetroots, has been shown have antioxidant properties for cellular health11 and also reduce blood pressure.12
Rutin and hesperidin: naturally found in citrus fruit, have been shown to support cardiovascular function and reduce inflammation.13
Resveratrol: a phenolic compound found in grape skins and seeds and red wine, 14 has been shown to delay the development of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.15
Polyphenols: found in green tea have been shown to counteract UV-induced inflammation in the skin.16
In addition to their natural health benefits, some phenolic compounds are also very flavourful, capsaicin is the phenolic compound that gives hot peppers like jalapenos and chillies their overwhelming warmth.
Of course, including plenty of antioxidant rich foods in your daily diet is the cheapest and most natural way to support your health, however, if you have increased requirements or are subject to high exposure to toxins or inflammation, these supplements may provide additional support.
Quercetin is one of the most potent antioxidants that is used often by nutritional therapists to support normal histamine release and support an overactive immune system.17
Pine Bark extract providing oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs). OPCs are thought to be beneficial in supporting the immune18 and cardiovascular system.19
Turmeric - containing the anti-inflammatory active ingredient curcumin,20 which has been found to reduce arthritic pain.21
Probiotics - along with all the other reputed benefits of probiotics for digestive and immune health the friendly bacteria in our gut have been associated with reduced oxidation and inflammation.22
The amino acid cysteine can support the body’s ability to make glutathione, which is especially important for lung health and can prove beneficial for those with recurrent chest infections.23
Alpha lipoic acid is able to directly quench free radicals, also known as the ‘master recycler’ and can regenerate antioxidant vitamins E, C, and glutathione. This recycling property is one reason why antioxidants are widely considered to work optimally in combination rather than in isolation.
To fully ensure that you are consuming as many antioxidants as possible, the key factor is to consume many bright and colourful fruit and vegetables - Eat a Rainbow.
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2 Organic Chemistry, Structure and Function"; Peter Vollhardt, et al.; 2011.
3 Tauler et al. Differential response of lymphocytes and neutrophils to high intensity physical activity and to vitamin C diet supplementation. Free Radic Res. 2003; 37:931-8.
4 Boyera et al. Effect of vitamin and its derivatives on collagen synthesis and cross-linking by normal human fibroblasts. Int J Cosmet Sci. 1998; 20 (3):151-8.
5 Sandstead HH. Understanding zinc: recent observations and interpretations. J Lab Clin Med 1994; 124:322-7.
6 Green HN, Mellanby E. Vitamin A as an anti-infective agent. BR Med J. 1928;2 (3537):691-696. (PubMed).
7 Mian E et al Anthocyanosides and the walls of microvessels: Further aspects of the mechanism of action of their protective in syndromes due to abnormal capillary fragility. Minerva Med 1977;68:3565–81.
8 Halliwell B, Gutteridge JMC. Free Radicals in Biology and Medicine. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1999.
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10 Alaluf et al. Dietary Carotenoids Contribute to Normal Human Skin Color and UV Photosensitivity. J Nutr. 132:399-403 ( 2002).
11 Georgiev VG, et al. Antioxidant activity and phenolic content of betalain extracts from intact plants and hairy root cultures of the red beetroot Beta vulgaris cv. Detroit dark red . Plant Foods Hum Nutr. (2010).
12 Siervo M, et al. Inorganic nitrate and beetroot juice supplementation reduces blood pressure in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis . J Nutr. (2013)
13 In-Young Choi et al. Hesperidin inhibits expression oh hypoxia inducible factor-1 alpha and inflammatory cytokine production from mast cells. Molecular and cellular biochemistry 2007; pp153-161.
14 British Journal of Nutrition"; Berry Flavonoids and Phenolics...; Daniele Del Rio, et al.; 2010.
15 Carluccio MA, Siculella L, Ancora MA, et al. Olive oil and red wine antioxidant polyphenols inhibit endothelial activation: antiatherogenic properties of Mediterranean diet phytochemicals. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2003;23(4):622-629. (PubMed).
16 Heinrich U, Moore CE, De Spirt S, Tronnier H, Stahl W. Green tea polyphenols provide photoprotection, increase microcirculation, and modulate skin properties of women. J Nutr. 2011;141(6):1202-1208. (PubMed)
17 Valentova. (Anti)mutagenic and immunomodulatory properties of quercetin glycosides, 10.1002/jsfa.7251, Journal of science of food and agriculture, 2015.
18 Laplaud et al. Antioxidant action of Vaccinium myrtillus extract on human low density lipoproteins in vitro: initial observations. Fundam Clin Pharmacol. 1997; 11 (1): 35-40.
20 Ravidran et al. Curcumin and Cancer Cells: How Many Ways Can Curry Kill Tumour Selectively? The AAPS Journal Vol. 11, No. 3, 2009(09).
21 Jackson et al. The antioxidants curcumin and quercetin inhibit inflammatory processes associated with arthritis. Inflamm Res. 2006; 55: 168-75
22 Lamprecht M et al. Probiotic supplementation affects markers of intestinal barrier, oxidation, and inflammation in trained men; a randomized, doubleblinded, placebo-controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Sep 20;9(1):45.
23 Van Schayck CP, Dekhuijzen PNR, Gorgels WJMJ, et al. Are anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory treatments effective in different subgroups of COPD? A hypothesis. Respir Med 1998;92:1259–64.
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