You’ve probably heard the word antioxidant before — maybe in a health magazine, a story headline online, or even in your doctor’s office. But how much do you know about these important nutrients?
The Importance of Antioxidants
In order to understand what an antioxidant is, we must remember some basics from science class. Atoms are made up of protons, electrons, and neutrons. Molecules are made of two or more atoms. In order for a molecule to remain stable, it must contain the right number of electrons; otherwise it will turn into a “free radical.”
Free radicals are dangerous molecules that attack good molecules that promote essential body functions. These “pro-oxidants” are produced by internal and external exposures. Antioxidants combat free radicals that cause various diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Free radicals are a natural part of human metabolism, but problems happen when the balance of free radicals and antioxidants is thrown off. This imbalance is called oxidative stress.
Scientists do know that antioxidants can help reduce inflammation, a process by which white blood cells protect your body from outside invaders like bacteria and viruses. When cells are damaged by an overabundance of free radicals, an inflammatory response can occur.
Your body makes some antioxidants on its own, but sometimes that’s not enough. A lot of times, your body generates too many free radicals, and your body cannot handle it, so external antioxidant intake is important.
There are thousands of antioxidants, and they are not only present in highly hyped “superfoods.” You can find antioxidants in a broad range of foods—like fruits, vegetables, seafood, whole grains, and meats — as well as in supplement form.
Your body naturally produces some helpful antioxidants in the form of glutathione and alpha lipoic acid. But you can also get antioxidants from your diet. Fruits, vegetables, and coffee are all rich in antioxidants.
There are thought to be hundreds, if not thousands, of substances that act as antioxidants. Antioxidants include vitamins like vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene as well as minerals like selenium and manganese. They exist in many foods, from blueberries to dark chocolate.
Types of Antioxidants
There are various types of antioxidants – each of which may play an important role in your health.
Lycopene is one of the three most commonly occurring carotenoids — a group of yellow, orange and red pigments produced by plants — found in foods. These are a group of antioxidants, some of which can be converted to vitamin A, while others, like lycopene, remain in their initial form and provide health benefits on their own.
Lycopenes are bioflavonoids that are closely related to beta carotene. In human blood serum, lycopene is the dominant carotenoid and constitutes approximately 50 percent of all carotenoids found in the serum. Lycopene appears in slightly higher concentrations in the prostate. As you grow older, the lycopene serum values are found to decrease as the risk of prostate cancer increases.
Lycopene is found in summery favorites like watermelon, sweet red peppers and pink grapefruit. Asparagus and red cabbage both have a fair amount too, while tropical fruits like papayas and guavas are particularly rich in lycopene. But tomatoes are among the richest sources of all, and the most commonly eaten.
They’re found in soybeans. They may help promote bone health, decrease joint inflammation, ease menopause symptoms, and help protect against breast cancer.
Isoflavones are considered a type of nutritional supplement produced almost exclusively by the Fabaceae (Leguminosae or bean) family. They are a specific group of molecules that comprise what is called a phytochemical (natural plant chemical) found in foods like legumes, and herbs like red clover. Isoflavones are considered phytoestrogens, meaning that they are similar in structure to the female hormone, estrogen.
Isoflavones are organic (carbon-containing) compounds that are related to flavonoids, a class of potent antioxidants. The main dietary sources of isoflavones are legumes, especially soybeans and soybean-containing products. A type of phytoestrogen — a plant that has estrogen like hormonal properties — isoflavones are also potent antioxidants and have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Scientists believe they may also play a role in the prevention of various chronic diseases, including heart disease and cognitive impairment.
This type of antioxidant is found dark chocolate, red wine, peanuts, and grapes. They have been shown to help promote heart and lung health, help prevent certain types of cancer, and reduce inflammation overall.
Since the early 1990s, when the presence of resveratrol in red wine was established, the scientific community has been exploring the effects of resveratrol on health. Specifically, it was postulated that resveratrol intake via moderate red wine consumption might help explain the fact that French people have a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD) in spite of consuming foods high in saturated fat, a phenomenon dubbed the “French Paradox”.
Since then, reports on the potential for resveratrol to prevent cancer, delay the development of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, improve glycemic control in type 2 diabetes, and extend lifespan in experimental models have continued to generate scientific interest.
A large amount of resveratrol is produced in the skin of grapes to protect the plant against fungal diseases and sun damage; therefore wine has higher levels of resveratrol compared to other natural food. Overall, red wine contains small amounts of resveratrol, less than 1 to 2 mg per 8 ounces of red wine. However, red wine has more resveratrol than white wine because red wines are fermented with the grape skins longer than white wines.
These are found in blue and purple fruits and veggies, such as berries, eggplant, purple potatoes, carrots, and asparagus. These antioxidants help promote blood vessel health.
Anthocyanins, a particular group of compounds, are one of the more than 6,000 members of the flavonoid family of polyphenol phytochemicals found in various plant foods. In addition to anthocyanins, the flavonoid group includes flavanols, flavones, flavanones, flavan-3-ols, and isoflavones. Anthocyanin pigments have been used in folk medicine for generations, but only recently the specific pharmacological properties of these compounds have been isolated and studied.
All brightly colored fruit and vegetables contain antioxidants – compounds which play a key role in protecting our bodies – but many naturally purple-coloured foods contain a certain antioxidant called anthocyanin. These are beneficial plant pigments which give fruit and veg their deep red, purple or blue hues.
These are chemical compounds found in plants, and they have a variety of possible health benefits for the body, including antioxidant activity. Scientists estimate there are more than 4,000 phytonutrients, though only a small fraction have been closely studied.
Phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals, are plant-based compounds or chemicals that have a beneficial effect on the body and may play a role in the prevention and even treatment of disease.
While it’s thought that there are tens of thousands of these phytochemicals, only a small number have been isolated and tested. Including classes such as carotenoids, flavonoids, isothiocyanates, and much more, these nutrients can have effects that range from antioxidants to anti-inflammatory agents, and properties that may be neuroprotective, provide immune support, regulate hormones, and much more.