Antioxidants - Nature's Little Doctors

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

Antioxidants are powerful disease fighters that protect your body from oxidation. Nature has gracefully provided us these natural little doctors to combat aging, disease and illness. Have you ever noticed how an avocado turns brown after you leave it out in the open air? This is due to oxidation. The same thing happens to apples if you leave them out. The cells in your body also slowly respond to oxidation over time. While we don't necessarily turn 'brown' or 'rotten,' we do age.

Antioxidants are bountiful in many of the foods we eat, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. Incorporating nature's little doctors into our diets on a regular basis can help combat the effects of aging and disease.

How Does Oxidation Work
How do antioxidants protect your body? Oxygen in the air affects all cells, whether those in the fruit of an avocado or the skin cells on your body. When cells are exposed to oxygen, they change. Over time our skin cells slough off as they die do to the oxidation process. Fortunately new skills rapidly form and replace old ones. The same thing happens if you cut your finger. Your body produces new cells to replace the old ones.

While it may seem like an insidious process, oxidation is perfectly natural. However, oxidation also results in some cell damage. Up to 2% of cells are damaged during oxidation and transform into free radicals. These cells lack a critical molecule necessary for their survival. Free radicals can damage other cells in their search to become whole again. Free radicals can cause cells to mutate and grow cancerous quickly.

Free radicals often result from bad behaviors, like smoking. Pollution and contaminants in our environment can also trigger our body to produce more free radicals. The biggest problem associated with free radicals is they multiply rapidly, setting off a chain reaction that can overwhelm our body's natural defenses. Cancer, heart disease and other ailments may result in part from free radical damage.

Antioxidants and Free Radicals
Our bodies normally fight off free radicals. However under constant assault from the environment and our personal bad habits, the body isn't able to offset all the damage done by free radicals. Fortunately antioxidants help combat free radicals. They can help reverse some of the damage associated with poor eating habits and toxins in the environment. Antioxidants act much like a natural doctor, stopping free radicals from mutating other cells. When antioxidants meet damaged free radical cells, they give one of their electrons to prevent cell tissue damage.

The best source of antioxidants? Our diets.

Here are excellent selections for boosting the antioxidants in your diet:
  1. Ascorbic Acid - Otherwise known as vitamin C. Vitamin C is considered one of the most powerful antioxidants. Because this vitamin is water soluble, our body excretes what we don't' use immediately. You should eat foods rich in vitamin C every day to reap the free radical fighting benefits of this super antioxidant. Foods rich in vitamin C include fruits, green peppers, green leafy vegetables and broccoli.

  2. Beta-carotene - Beta-carotene might help combat free radical damage associated with excessive solar radiation. That means if you hang out in the sun too much you'll benefit from this antioxidant. Food sources include orange vegetables like carrots, peppers, sweet potatoes and some squashes. Some fruits like cantaloupe and peaches are also high in beta carotene.

  3. Vitamin E - Vitamin E is also helpful for the skin. It may promote healing after a sunburn and may help slow down aging. Great sources of natural vitamin E include whole grains, green leafy vegetables and fish liver oil.

  4. Selenium - Selenium is a mineral found in fish, shellfish, red meat, chicken and eggs. It helps fight cell damage associated with free radical invasion.

Of course, many foods contain powerful antioxidants to combat the effects of free radical damage. Berries, beans, vegetables, seeds, nuts and whole grains are exceptional selections for fighting free radical damage.

Many companies market their vitamins as powerful antioxidant boosters. While supplements are beneficial, they do not replace a healthy diet with foods from each of the four food groups. You should try to eat enough healthy foods to get antioxidants from your diet. Despite this data suggests that more than 30% of Americans rely on vitamin and mineral supplements to meet the RDA for certain nutrients.

Antioxidants and Tea
Green and black teas are also wonderful sources of antioxidants. In fact, some estimates suggest that green teas in particular may have as much as 10 times the antioxidants found in foods. Tea comes from a plant rich in polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that is very powerful. Green and black teas both have different kinds of antioxidants in them, including flavonoids, considered the most powerful group of antioxidants. Because of this tea is consider a powerful detoxifying agent, capable of reversing damage associated with free radicals. Some tests suggest that tea has a wide range of benefits including:
  • Lower your risk of heart disease.

  • Lower levels of LDL cholesterol in the body.

  • Improved metabolism and weight loss.

  • Improve skin tone.

  • Protect and strengthen bones.

  • Reduce risk of diabetes.
To benefit from the antioxidants in tea, studies suggest you drink up to six cups per day. Be careful if you decide to do so you drink decaffeinated tea at least part of the day. The caffeine content in tea should not affect the benefits associated with tea drinking.

Remember, our bodies are under constant assault from free radicals and environmental pollutants. The more antioxidants we eat, the better our bodies are able to fight off the effects of these untoward elements.