Antioxidants. This is one of those words that seems to come up all the time. Someone tells us to eat a particular food because it’s “full of antioxidants”. While picking out a tea to drink, we see some labels that say “high in antioxidants”. Even juice bars are naming their smoothies with “antioxidants” as one of the words in the title. We consume these things and feel better just because we hear that it’s good for us. So, what does this really mean? What exactly are antioxidants and why are they good for us?
The best way to start is by explaining what free radicals are. Free radicals can be created in the body by a number of factors such as stress, poor diet, smoking, pollution, food additives, pesticides and alcohol. They are unstable and float around the body, stealing electrons from other healthy molecules. The damage doesn’t stop there, however, because the new molecule is now missing an electron and has now become another destructive free radical. This snowball effect can wreak havoc on health tissues throughout the body. Free radicals are responsible for aging, tissue damage and possibly some diseases. Their chief danger comes from the damage they can do with important cellular components such as DNA or cell membranes. As free radicals “steal” electrons from healthy cells, this process has been named oxidation, which is where the word oxidant comes from.
Here’s where antioxidants come in to save the day. They act as scavengers in the body, sourcing out the highly reactive free radicals. They then donate one of their electrons to the unstable free radical, which stops it from causing more damage in the body. The chain reaction of free radical damage has now been stopped, before it can go on to destroy vital cells in the body. Think of them as nature’s “mop up” squad. The balance between the production of free radicals and the antioxidant defenses in the body has significant health implications. Too much free radical production combined with too little antioxidants, causes “oxidative stress”, which many diseases are now being related to.
Now where do we find these antioxidants? Our body does have a natural antioxidant defense system but we must help it along. A good night’s sleep combined with a de-stressing practice such as yoga or meditation will help to support this system. Antioxidants can also be found in foods we eat. They are obtained through healthy fruits and vegetables, nuts, teas and spices. Examples of sources include blueberries, oranges, broccoli, green tea, spinach, peaches, avocado, basil, gogi berries, bell peppers, apples, beets, cranberries, ginger, pomegranate, walnuts, strawberries, cinnamon, turmeric, hazelnuts, cilantro, and the list goes on. Basically just think lots of variety and colour. Consume plenty of these fresh, nutritious foods and put those free radicals to a stop!