Antioxidants. What are they, and why do we need them?

The word antioxidants is often talked about in regards to its health benefits, but what actually are they, and why are they so important?  

Antioxidants are compounds that neutralise 'free radicals'. Free radicals are molecules that have an unpaired electron making them highly reactive in the body. Essentially they are unwanted by-products from chemical reactions, in part caused by things like smoking, pollution, toxins and UV light exposure. They are also are natural result of normal physiological processes in the body such as metabolism and exercise.

On their own free radicals aren't necessarily a worry but a build up of free radicals in the body ( known as oxidative stress) can cause an adverse chain reaction, leading to inflammation and altered lipids, proteins and DNA.  In addition Free radicals can 'steal' electrons from other molecules, therefore destabilising that molecule and creating a domino effect. Too many free radicals in the body causes cellular damage and can play a role in the development of cardiovascular disease & Alzheimer's 
So what do antioxidants do? Antioxidants keep free radicals in check. They are able to donate an electron without become destabilised themselves, thus stoping the chain reaction. Once the free radical is neutralised, the negative properties of free radicals are eradicated.  

How do we get antioxidants through the diet?

Antioxidants exist in many forms. Vitamin E can be founds in foods such as green vegetables, plant oils and nuts. Vitamin C can be found in a wide range of fruit and vegetables ( pepper, spinach, kale, broccoli, sprouts). Beta-carotene ( a precursor to Vitamin A) is found in bright yellow, red and orange fruit and vegetables. Zinc is found in seafood, nuts, meat, pulses and can help protect cells from free radical damage. Phytonutrients such as flavonoids, phytoestrogens & polyphenols are compounds (in which 1000's exist) produced by plants to protect themselves from harmful insects and are known for their high antioxidant levels. They can be found in tea, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, herbs and spices. Other antioxidants that we can get from our diet include: Selenium, lycopene and manganese. 

If you eat a wide variety of foods, and include lots of different colourful fruit and vegetables you are most likely getting enough antioxidants through the diet. However in some circumstances due to external and environmental factors such as high air pollutants, tobacco smoke and chemicals like pesticides your antioxidant status may be low, and you may benefit from a short term supplementation. Supplements contain concentrated forms of antioxidants and can help boost & support nutrient status.

If you are going to take antioxidant supplementation I would advise talking to a health professional beforehand. As always if you have any questions please feel free to email me.