How Antioxidants Are Good for You and How to Get More of Them

Antioxidants have become well-deserved superstars of the food world. Here is all you need to know about what they are, what they do, and why you should consume more of them.

What Are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are substances that protect your body from damage cause by free radicals. Free radicals are produced when the body breaks down food or metabolizes substances like tobacco smoke. They have been linked to heart disease, cancer and other diseases.

Free Radicals are Referred to as Scavengers

Free radicals are “unstable” atoms or molecules (i.e. they are always on the look-out to steal electrons from other nearby molecules), which are produced by the body all the time as a result of normal metabolism. Not all free radicals are bad, as some actually help to fight infection, kill bacteria and heal wounds, but in large numbers free radicals are a real threat to well-being. They are involved in the development of heart disease, many types of cancer and neurological conditions, as well as in the process of ageing. Certain lifestyle factors increase the production of free radicals, including smoking, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, over-exposing the skin to UV light (including natural sunlight) and taking inadequate measures to manage stress.

Exercise Increases Free Radical Production

During exercise, circulating free radical levels rise due to a combination of increased energy production, lactic acid accumulation, haemoglobin breakdown and heat generation. This explains to some extent why people may experience muscle soreness, fluid retention and tenderness following physical exertion.

The best way of protecting against the harmful effects of high numbers of free radicals is by making changes towards achieving a healthier diet.

Top Food Sources of Antioxidants

There are several types of antioxidants, and they tend to be abundant in colorful fruits and vegetables. Here are some examples.

Beta-carotene is converted by the body into vitamin A. It is found in orange-colored vegetables and fruits, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, red peppers, cantaloupe, apricots, spinach, mangoes, pumpkin and papaya.

Vitamin A is found in sweet potatoes, carrots, liver, milk and egg yolks.

Vitamin C is one of the most well-known antioxidants. Red peppers are a top source, along with many other fruits and vegetables, including oranges, strawberries, tomatoes, broccoli, green peppers, blackcurrants, kiwis and papayas. Potatoes, often eaten in substantial quantities as a dietary staple, are also an excellent source.

Vitamin E is less abundant in foods so it takes more effort to get enough of it every day. Almonds are a great source, as is wheat germ, some oils, mangoes and other nuts. Vitamin E – one of the fat-soluble vitamins to be found in sunflower, safflower, seeds, tahini, avocado, oily fish and egg yolk. Aside from its antioxidant function, vitamin E is also involved in maintaining the structure of cell membranes and supporting the body's response to inflammation.

Zinc essential for the efficient functioning of the immune system and the maintenance of healthy skin, it can be obtained from bread, wholegrain cereals, nuts, seeds and eggs.

Lutein, an important antioxidant for eye health, is also found in leafy green vegetables such as collard greens, kale and spinach.

Lycopene has gained much attention lately for its ability to protect against prostate cancer. The best source of lycopene is processed tomato products such as sauces and canned tomatoes, but it is also in watermelon, pink grapefruit, mangos, berries and blood oranges. Selenium is a mineral, but it does function like an antioxidant. Rice, wheat and meat contribute most of the selenium to our diet, but Brazil nuts are a top source as well.

Quercetin A flavanoid, which can exert anti-inflammatory effects and may be beneficial in the management of environmental allergies such as hayfever. It is naturally present in garlic, apples and grapes, but onions are by far the best source.

There are many more antioxidants than those mentioned above and new ones are always being discovered. The best way to ensure you are getting enough is to eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and other plant foods, such as nuts and seeds. Choose from a variety of colours for a range of nutrients. Eating a rainbow a day might just help to keep illness at bay.

Most superfoods are surprisingly easy to find, at least according to a New York Times article on health which lists the following super-easy-to-find-and-use superfoods.

1. Beets: Full of anti-oxidants.
2. Cabbage: Cancer-fighting and full of other good stuff.
3. Swiss chard: Good for the eyes.
4. Cinnamon: May help with blood pressure.
5. Pomegranate juice: anti-oxidant giant.
6. Dried plums: Anti-oxidants, potassium, iron, and fiber; they've get it all.
7. Pumpkin seeds: Full of magnesium, carbohydrates, amino acids, unsaturated fatty acids, most of the B vitamins, C, D, E, K, calcium, potassium, niacin, and phosphorous. Whew!
8. Sardines: Get your omega-3’s here! Also, surprisingly, loaded with calcium.
9. Turmeric: Possible anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
10. Frozen blueberries:Anti-oxidants, vitamins E and C, and anti-aging properties.

Antioxidant Rich Foods: Peppers 

Bell peppers are rich in antioxidants and vitamins while their hotter relative red pepper or cayenne is not only antioxidant rich but extremely effective for its medicinal properties. One thing is certain, peppers of all kinds are worth adding to a healthy diet.

Red pepper or cayenne can be used internally and externally. Internally it is an excellent digestive aid. It stimulates the flow of saliva as well as the secretions of the stomach both of which break down the foods eaten. It is used as a carminative to reduce gas and due to its antibacterial properties it also helps relieve infectious diarrhea.

Red pepper has been used internally to combat fevers and colds. One or two doses of red pepper in warm water has been known to remove a cold. The analgesic properties of red pepper can assist in the recovery from overindulgence in alcohol. For hangovers, adding a pinch of cayenne to some tomato juice will go a long way to getting rid of the hangover headache

Externally, red pepper slightly irritates the skin, which increases blood flow to the area and reduces inflammation. Traditionally a small amount of cayenne has been added to the socks to warm up cold feet. Redness does not occur when using red pepper because it stimulates sensory nerves rather than capillaries. Caution must be taken when using red pepper because overuse can result in blistering and severe dermatitis. In small quantities, however, it can be extremely beneficial for treating sore painful joints and tendonitis.

Red pepper has been used as a counter-irritant for muscle pain for centuries. Studies recently have shown that it does contain analgesic properties which are useful for certain types of chronic pain. It is effective for the ankle and foot pain known as "burning foot," which occurs in approximately half of all diabetics.

Red pepper or cayenne is under study for the possibility that it may help cut cholesterol. It is an amazing stimulant which also assists in cleaning the blood. New results on the health benefits of red pepper are appearing regularly.

Antioxidant Rich Foods: Fruits

Researchers found the best sources of antioxidants are plant-based foods. Fruits are one of the best sources to add to your diet to increase antioxidant intake.

Topping the list of fruits rich in antioxidants, berries such as blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries offer the highest amounts of anthocyanins, the compound responsible for the various red, blues and purples of berries. Research suggests anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants that promote a healthy heart and play a role in disease prevention.

Cherries are also rich in anthocyanins. Research suggests the anthocyanins in cherries work to reduce inflammation from arthritis, heart disease and cancer and may decrease levels of uric acid in joints which helps in the prevention of gout. Sweet and sour cherries are both a rich source of vitamin C which acts as a powerful antioxidant that boosts immunity and reduces the risk of stroke.

Green and red pears are a good source of vitamin C and copper, both of which help combat the damaging effects of free radicals. According to the George Mateljan Foundation, copper helps protect the body from free radicals generated during normal metabolism, in addition to when white blood cells attack invading bacteria and viruses.

Apples (with the peel) are a fruit rich in phytonutrients. These antioxidants work in the body to promote heart health, help repair damaged DNA caused by smoking and other toxic substances, detoxify the body, and boost immunity.

Fresh or dried plums are also antioxidant-rich fruits. Research suggests one plum contains approximately the same amount of antioxidants as that of a handful of blueberries. Although more research is needed, preliminary studies show that the phytonutrients in plums inhibit breast cancer growth without adverse effects on normal cell growth.

Berries, pears, cherries, apples, and plums are all rich sources of anti-aging and disease-preventing antioxidants. Antioxidant intake is most beneficial when obtained through food. Easily boost antioxidant intake by aiming for the recommended five to six servings of these antioxidant-rich fruits daily.

As you can see, fruits are an important superfood, grabbing 3 of the ten slots, and beets, though a vegetable, have the same important reddish-purple color. But if you needed to pick just one proven powerhouse to add to your regular diet that makes the list year after year you couldn't get much better than the venerable and stalwart American wild blueberry (they date back to early Native American use). Packed with antioxidants and flavinoids, these berries are also high in potassium and vitamin C, making them the top choice of doctors and nutritionists. Not only can they lower your risk of heart disease and cancer, but they are also an anti-inflammatory.

Additionally, according to the US Highbush Blueberry Counsel (in a USDA Human Nutrition Research Center laboratory), feeding blueberries to laboratory rats slowed age-related loss of mental capacity, a finding that has exciting and important implications for us all.

Of course one cannot discount the solid and healthful benefits of the chokecherry, elderberry, cranberry, black currant, blackberry, cranberry, raspberry, prune, or plum, which are all named in the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) report . The ORAC offers a complete list of foods and corresponding antioxidant levels as compiled by scientists at the National Institutes of Health, namely the National Institute on Aging.

So what is really going on with all of the fruity hype? The bottom line is that searching for the healthiest fruit is an illusion. Use this rule instead: fruit or veggie, if it is reddish-purple it is a good bet to be full of antioxidants, might even be a superfood, and probably should be part of your regular diet.

Antioxidant Rich Foods: Green Tea or White Tea

White tea, like green tea, is not fermented before drying. White tea comes from the tips and buds of the Camellia Sinensis bush. It is picked on dry days and then steamed and dried. Little oxidation takes place, making white tea the least oxidative of all the teas which originate from the camellia sinensis bush.

Green tea is made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis bush. It is not fermented prior to drying. Prior to drying, green tea is rolled into specific shapes. Little oxidation takes place, although there is more than in white tea.

Although the picking and processing of white tea varies slightly from that of green tea, the health claims are very much the same:

Anti-aging: Both green and white tea are teeming with antioxidants. Antioxidants seek out and destroy free radicals, which are a major cause of aging tissue. Drinking either white tea or green tea can improve the radiance of the skin.

No discussion of the health benefits of white tea and green tea would be complete without the mention of the most important antioxidant in both teas. The name of this antioxidant is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). EGCG is an antioxidant in the catechin family. The Mayo Clinic study as well as a number of other studies credit EGCG as the beneficial component of green tea that is the most effective. Recently, studies have discovered that white tea is also rich in EGCG.

Reducing tooth decay: The fluoride content in white and green tea can be used to help reduce tooth decay. Both teas also kill the bacteria which cause plaque and help prevent bad breath.

Preventing cancer: Numerous forms of cancer seem to be inhibited by both white and green tea. White tea, however, seems to be the most beneficial for stomach cancer. A 1994 study found that drinking green tea reduced the risk of esophageal cancer by 60% in both women and men. The Mayo Clinic has reported a beneficial action of green tea against chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Lowering cholesterol and heart related benefits: The catechins in white and green tea are shown to reduce the build up of bad cholesterol while increasing good cholesterol. Both tone the vascular system, allowing blood to flow properly. They also thin the blood lowering blood pressure. They promote strong and healthy blood vessels reducing the risk of stroke. Research has shown that people that drink two or more cups of tea per day are less likely to die after suffering a heart attack.

Weight loss: According to research, green tea burns fat and boosts the metabolism

3 Surprisingly Healthy Antioxidant Rich Drinks

Antioxidants are natural compounds found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Antioxidants reduce the ability of free radicals to damage various cells within the body which in turn prevents the onset of age related illness and disease.

While foods such as fruits and vegetables are the most nutritious source of antioxidants there are several beverages that possess a startling amount of disease fighting antioxidants.

Antioxidant Rich Drinks: Cocoa

Cocoa has been enjoyed and revered as a sweet and delectable treat for thousands of years.

- Cocoa is a rich dark powder originating from South America.
- Cocoa is made from cacao pods that are harvested from the cacao tree.
- Each cacao pod is filled with 30-50 cocoa beans that are surrounded and protected by a thick sweet pulp, commonly referred to a ‘baba de cacao’.
- Cocoa powder contains a significant amount of naturally occurring antioxidants referred to as flavonoids.

Cocoa is a rich and milky beverage that has been studied for its ability to lower LDL cholesterol levels, reduce blood pressure and improve the flow of blood throughout the body.

Antioxidant Rich Drinks: Red Wine

Wine is filled with flavonoids and non-flavonoids which are antioxidants responsible for protecting the blood vessels, preventing blood clots, lowering blood pressure and reducing LDL cholesterol levels.

- The non-flavonoids in red wine are referred to as resveratrol and are estimated to be the key to the numerous health benefits of the beverage.
- Resveratrol can be found in the colorful skin or peel of the dark grapes used in the wine making process.
- Red wine also contains a variety of other health promoting antioxidant compounds including flavanols, polyphenols and phenolic acids.

It is important to note that red wine is considered a healthy beverage only when consumed in moderation. More than one small glass of wine per day can actually be detrimental to a person’s health and can ultimately increase the risk of cancer, liver disease and high blood pressure.

Antioxidant Rich Drinks: Coffee

Coffee is a revered beverage that is consumed several times a day by millions of people around the world. In its purest state, without the addition of heavy creams, syrupy flavors or spoons full of sugar coffee is actually good for you.

- Studies indicate that coffee is an excellent source of healing and disease preventing antioxidants.
- Roasted coffee beans and freshly brewed coffee contain ample amounts of both chlorogenic acid and caffeic acid.
- Chlorogenic and caffeic acid are powerful antioxidants that can help to prevent the onset of Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and various types of cancer.

Although it is not recommended as a substitute for a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, coffee is a beneficial and very healthy beverage when consumed in moderation.

Coenzyme Q10 Antioxidant Benefits

Coenzyme Q10 is part of an enzyme complex that is involved in many biochemical processes within the body including energy production, synthesis of proteins, and muscular contractions. In addition, coenzyme Q10 may also serve as an antioxidant that scavenges free radicals, which are harmful to tissues and cells. Although coenzyme Q10 has been studied in the treatment and prevention of heart disease and certain types of cancer, it remains unclear whether coenzyme Q10 supplements provides significant clinical benefits.

Although the recommended daily dose of coenzyme Q10 is between 30 to 200mg, coenzyme Q10 supplements can provide between 50 to 1,200 mg per day, with the total daily dose divided into multiple dosing times. Although supplements can provide a larger than recommended dose of coenzyme Q10, reported adverse effects are rare. Coenzyme Q10 supplements are widely available at most pharmacies and retail outlets.

Although rare, adverse side effects including allergic reactions, heartburn, headache, fatigue, diarrhea, and trouble sleeping have been reported. In addition, coenzyme Q10 may interfere with certain prescription medications. Insufficient safety data exists for special populations including pregnant and nursing mothers. Patients should speak with a physician before using coenzyme Q10 supplements.

Dietary Sources of Coenzyme Q10: In addition to the amount produced inside the human body, additional coenzyme Q10 can be obtained from dietary sources including beef, soybeans, peanuts, and fatty fish. Since coenzyme Q10 is fat-soluble, taking supplements with meals that can contain fat may aid with absorption inside the digestive tract. Coenzyme Q10 supplements are relatively safe and may benefit individuals with poor nutritional intake.

Should You Get Antioxidants from Supplements or Food?

Many people have assumed that since antioxidants from food are good for us, supplements with large amounts of a single antioxidant must be better. However, the opposite has proven to be the case. One study on antioxidant supplements in smokers was halted early because the incidence of cancer actually increased.

The bottom line: choose food whenever possible. A multivitamin with the daily recommended value of a variety of vitamins and minerals is okay, but large doses of single antioxidants often act differently than researchers have anticipated.

The good news is that you can enjoy a varied, colorful and delicious diet that offers a full range of antioxidant benefits. Simply choose a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, and you'll benefit both your body and your taste buds.

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