Every one of us has both free radicals and antioxidants present inside of our bodies at all times. Some antioxidants are made from the body itself, while we must get others from our diets by eating high antioxidant foods that double as anti-inflammatory foods.
Our bodies also produce free radicals as byproducts of cellular reactions. For example, the liver produces and uses free radicals to detoxify the body, while white blood cells send free radicals to destroy bacteria, viruses and damaged cells.
When certain types of oxygen molecules are allowed to travel freely in the body, they cause what's known as oxidative damage, which is the formation of free radicals. When antioxidant levels in the body are lower than that of free radicals — due to poor nutrition, toxin exposure or other factors — oxidation wreaks havoc in the body.
The effect? Accelerated aging, damaged or mutated cells, broken-down tissue, the activation of harmful genes within DNA, and an overloaded immune system.
The Western lifestyle — with its processed foods, reliance on medications and high exposure to chemicals or environmental pollutants — seems to lay the foundation for the proliferation of free radicals. Because many of us are exposed to such high rates of oxidative stress from a young age, we need the power of antioxidants more than ever, which means we need to consume high antioxidant foods.
What Are Antioxidants?
While there are many ways to describe what antioxidants do inside the body, one antioxidant definition is any substance that inhibits oxidation, especially one used to counteract the deterioration of stored food products or remove potentially damaging oxidizing agents in a living organism.
Antioxidants include dozens of food-based substances you may have heard of before, such as carotenoids like beta-carotene, lycopene and vitamin C. These are several examples of antioxidants that inhibit oxidation, or reactions promoted by oxygen, peroxide and/or free radicals.
Free radicals accumulate in the body due to oxidative stress, which can be caused by a number of different factors, including diet and lifestyle. Over time, free radicals can cause cell damage and contribute to the development of chronic disease.
Antioxidants help neutralize these harmful free radicals to prevent the potential negative effects on health.
Research suggests that when it comes to longevity and overall health, some of the benefits of consuming antioxidant foods, herbs, teas and supplements include:
- Less risk for cognitive problems, such as dementia
- Reduced cancer risk
- Longer life span
- Protection against heart disease and stroke
- Detoxification support
- Prevention of oxidation and spoilage
- Healthier, more youthful, glowing skin
Can Help Prevent Cognitive Decline
Oxidative stress is believed to play a central role in the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases, but a nutrient-dense diet seems to lower one's risk. The Journal of the American Medical Association of Neurology (JAMA Neurology) reports that higher intake of foods rich in antioxidants, such as vitamin C and vitamin E, may modestly reduce long-term risk of dementia and Alzheimer's. Many studies have found that people eating plant-based diets high in antioxidants, such as the Mediterranean diet, have better protection over cognition.
Reduce the Effects of Aging on the Skin
Perhaps most noticeably, free radicals speed up the aging process when it comes to the appearance and health of your skin. Using antioxidants for skin may help combat this damage, especially from eating sources high in vitamin C, beta-carotene and other antioxidants. Vitamin A and C have been connected to a decrease in the appearance of wrinkles and skin dryness. Vitamin C, specifically, is a powerful antioxidant that can help reduce the effect of oxidative damage caused by pollution, stress or poor diet.
Protect Vision and Eye Health
The antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene have all been shown to have positive effects on preventing macular degeneration, or age-related vision loss/blindness. Many foods that provide these nutrients also supply antioxidants called lutein and zeaxanthin, nicknamed the eye vitamins, found in brightly colored foods like fruits and vegetables — especially leafy greens and types that are deep orange or yellow.
Slow the Effects of Aging by Reducing Free Radical Damage
The single most important benefit of antioxidants is counteracting free radicals found inside every human body, which are very destructive to things like tissue and cells. Free radicals are responsible for contributing to many health issues and have connections to such diseases as cancer and premature aging of the skin or eyes.
Types of Antioxidants
The term “antioxidant” doesn't actually refer to one specific compound but rather the activity of specific compounds in the body. There are many different types of antioxidants, including several antioxidant vitamins, minerals and polyphenols.
Most whole foods include a mix of the best antioxidants, making it easy to maximize the potential health benefits and fit a range of vitamins for the immune system into your diet.
Along with other compounds on the list of antioxidants, vitamin C antioxidants are highly effective at neutralizing free radicals to protect against disease. Other vitamins and minerals that have powerful antioxidant properties include vitamin A, vitamin E, manganese and selenium.
Top Antioxidant Foods
Antioxidants may be easier to add to your diet than you might think. Based on ORAC scores provided by Superfoodly (based on research from a broad number of sources), below are some of the top antioxidant foods by weight:
- Wild blueberries
- Dark chocolate
- Krill oil
- Kidney beans
- Goji berries
Along with antioxidant foods, certain herbs, spices and essential oils derived from nutrient-dense plants are extremely high in healing antioxidant compounds.
Top Antioxidant Supplements
The American Heart Association, Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic recommend getting antioxidants from whole foods and a wide variety of sources. While it's always ideal, and usually more beneficial, to get antioxidants or other nutrients directly from real food sources, certain types may also be helpful when consumed in supplement form.
There's still debate over which antioxidants may offer help preventing or treating diseases when consumed in concentrated dosages. Some research has shown that antioxidants like lutein and glutathione may be beneficial when taken in supplement form — for example, in preventing vision loss, joint problems or diabetes.
Other research doesn't always show the same results, and sometimes certain supplements like vitamin A or vitamin C may even be harmful in high amounts.
So just remember that while they might help you in certain instances, overall it doesn't seem that consuming supplemental antioxidants helps you live longer. That's where your diet and lifestyle come in.