You’ve probably heard of antioxidants before, and maybe even named dropped them yourself, but have you ever stopped to think about what antioxidants are and how they benefit you? In the spirit of 2020, let’s start with the bad news first- free radicals.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that are naturally produced in your body as a normal byproduct of cellular metabolism. If that is a lot to digest, think of a free radical as the unstable partner you may have dated in high school. Full of energy, very compelling, and a bit destructive in nature. As your body digests food and conducts other metabolic processes that allow you to go about your day, it is producing free radicals. If you do things like exercise, breathe in air pollution, or experience stress, more of these unstable molecules will be produced. These external sources of free radicals are important because an excess can cause damage to your cells.
Before you sell your treadmill on eBay and move to a cabin in the woods, know that some free radical production is actually good and necessary for cell development and protection (I bet your destructive high school partner had some redeeming qualities too). What becomes harmful to your cells is prolonged, excess levels of free radicals. This damage can play a role in the development of chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disorders, cancer, aging, cataract, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease (1).
Ok, so here is the good news; it turns out that, as a result of billions of years of evolution, our bodies are very smart and pretty good at keeping us alive. Thus, we have a way to protect our cells from being overrun by free radical damage.
Enter, the antioxidant.
If we are continuing the relationship analogy, antioxidants are your dependable people-pleasers that you would probably take home to meet your parents. Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals and turn them into stable molecules. This, in turn, protects your cells from damage that might be caused by excess free radicals. Your body produces antioxidants naturally (some examples are Coq10, melatonin, and lipoic acid) but other sources of antioxidants need to be provided through food or supplements (like vitamin E, C, and carotenoids).
So how can I protect my cells?!
The wrong conclusion to make from this antioxidant science/relationship lesson is that if antioxidants are good, more is better. Loading up on all the antioxidant elixirs likely won’t help prevent any disease. There is also evidence that too much of an individual antioxidant (like vitamin E) can increase your risk for disease (2). The best advice has and always will be: eat your fruits and veggies. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants and most importantly, a variety of them. Observational studies have found a relationship between the number of servings of fruits and vegetables people consumed and their disease risk (2). So next time you’re looking for something to snack on, throw in something crunchy and colorful. Do that enough times and it may just prolong your life!