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What are antioxidants?

Monday, 12 June 2017  |  Editor

Let’s get straight to it. What exactly are antioxidants?

We know we need them and we think they are good for us, but why do we need them? Why are they so crucial to help with preventing chronic disease and the ageing process? We use the term a lot, but do we understand what it actually means and its implications for health? Let’s take a look…

An antioxidant is basically something that reverses or stops ‘oxidation’. But what exactly is oxidation?

In scientific terms, oxidation is the gain of oxygen by a substance. Imagine a freshly cut apple or avocado turning brown, a nail becoming rusty or a copper statue turning green. These are examples of everyday oxidation. In most instances the process of oxidation causes damage or destruction.

Oxidation creates free radicals, boisterous little things that have been freed from their usual home to go and wreak havoc in the neighbourhood. These free radicals are unstable and need to be ‘caught’ before they can cause more damage to other healthy functioning cells. These free radicals negatively affect cell membrane health, proteins, and DNA expression which can trigger a number of human diseases. Antioxidants are our natural protectors.

Antioxidants are abundant in nature, because plants contain antioxidants to protect themselves too. The nutritional content of natural whole foods is just what our body needs to negate the effects of our own biochemical processes. However we sometimes struggle to obtain sufficient antioxidants in the modern world due to a nutritionally deficient society – where urbanisation, overuse of agricultural land, intensive farming, stress-fuelled society and easy access to processed foods , we are unable to provide our body with the essential nutrition required to defuse this free radical activity.

Not only is it a natural process within the human body but we also can take in free radicals from our environment. This can be in burnt or fried foods, chemicals as pesticides are in home and personal products and various other exposures through our environment.

Can you see now why antioxidants are implicated in healthy ageing, reducing the virulence of chronic disease, improving cognition and mental health and maintaining and improving general wellness?

So what can we do to protect ourselves?

  • Eat organic and/or local produce as much as you can afford.
  • Base your diet on whole foods in forms of fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains
  • Minimise and ideally eliminate processed foods, usually void of any antioxidant nutrition.
  • Keep a healthy mind by keeping it hydrated, happy and stress-free
  • Look after your gut. A healthy gut is a healthy body!

Include key nutrients in your diet that help support high antioxidant activity, such as:

  • Turmeric - containing the active ingredient curcumin. This spice is known for killing cancers, improving cognition and reducing the signs of ageing.
  • Vitamin C - improves immune cell function (macrophages & T lymphocytes).
  • Vitamin D - appears to enhance innate immunity and inhibits the development of autoimmunity1.
  • Grapeseed extract (as Vitaflavan®) - an excellent source of oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs). These antioxidant molecules have approximately 50 times more free radical scavenging ability than vitamins C and E.
  • Probiotics2 – 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.
  • Quercetin - One of the most potent antioxidants that is used often by nutritionists to support normal histamine release and support an overactive immune system.

Producers of health supplements have long devised products with many or all of the necessary components of antioxidants above in one tablet or capsule. You can see a list of those available on this site here.

    1.    Griffin, M.D., Xing, N. and Kumar R. (2003) Vitamin D and its analogs as regulators of immune activation and antigen presentation. Annual Review of Nutrition, 23, 117-145.
    2.    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.