The term “antioxidants” is something you hear about frequently, but do you really understand what they are and why they are so important?

In this article, you will discover why antioxidants help your health and well-being, especially with aging.

To fully understand the benefits of antioxidants, you first need to grasp the concept of free radicals.


The Free Radical Theory

Scientists have proposed many theories about how we age. However, the most logical, well-accepted theory is known as the free radical theory.

You likely think of oxygen as the source of life itself. But you may not know that oxygen is not always healthy. It can cause problems by a process known as oxidation.

You may have learned in your high school biology class how living organisms use oxygen to generate energy — and that’s true. But cells must be able to simultaneously protect themselves from oxygen while they benefit from it. That’s why cells break down nutrients gradually, releasing tiny amounts of energy as they go.

Unfortunately, as cells use oxygen to gain nutrients, microscopic free radicals become an unavoidable side effect.

Free radicals are molecules or atoms with unpaired electrons in the outer orbits of their molecular structures. These free radicals are very reactive, as they keep trying to steal electrons from their neighboring molecules.

It’s actually this loss of electrons that affects healthy cells, DNA, and mitochondria — the little power plants that work to  fuel cells with energy.

During cellular metabolism or energy production, around 3% of the energy is released as free radicals.

Some free radicals aid in cell function, and many are neutralized by special antioxidants within the cell.

Free radical production can be increased by:

  • Imbalanced inflammatory response
  • Strenuous exercise
  • Thyroid concerns
  • UV radiation (from the sun, for example)
  • Certain chemicals, additives, and toxins

The #1 item on the list above — inflammatory response — is a major factor.


Imbalanced Inflammatory Response and Free Radicals

Inflammation is crucial to body defense as a way to heal tissue injury and promote health.

However, many people suffer an imbalanced inflammatory response that goes on for years and does not promote overall health.


Antioxidants to the Rescue

Of course, with aging our DNA is constantly bombarded by free radical molecules.

Your body contains a multilayered system called the antioxidant network. Within every cell, there is a group of antioxidant enzymes who function solely to help with pesky free radicals.

Food is an important part of our system of antioxidants. Nutritious foods contain antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins A, C, E, D, K. There are also antioxidant minerals, such as magnesium, zinc, selenium, manganese, and chromium. Then there are the antioxidant phytochemicals, which are plant compounds found mostly in fruits and vegetables.

Foods contain many different forms of antioxidants. Eating a wide variety of nutrient-dense vegetables is necessary, since free radicals operate in specific cellular territories. Some work in fatty areas like the cell membrane. Others function in more watery parts like the cellular cytoplasm.

Research has shown that all these antioxidant nutrients work together to promote health. One common mistake people make when it comes to antioxidant supplements is thinking that a single antioxidant nutrient will be sufficient. A combination of antioxidants used together is considerably more effective than when used alone. This is known as a synergistic effect.


Tips to Increase Antioxidant Intake

Eat 5-10 servings of fresh vegetables and some fruits every day. Pick nutrient-dense vegetables like broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, greens, and onions. Since fruits are high in sugar, eat them moderately and avoid sweetened fruit juices. Consuming this healthful array of vegetables and moderate supply of fruits will give you plenty of vitamins, minerals, and powerful antioxidant flavonoids.

Consume more extra-virgin olive oil. This oil contains robust antioxidants as well as healthy fat. Use it on a salad with balsamic vinegar, or mix it with other foods. The heart-healthy Mediterranean diet places an emphasis on olive oil.

Protect yourself from excess stress. Too much stress affects free radical production, especially in the brain. Spend some time in nature, learn relaxation techniques, connect with family, and find other ways to help lower your daily stress levels.

Use antioxidant supplements for an added benefit. As you’ve seen, it’s good to consume a wide range of antioxidant vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. A high quality multi-vitamin should contain a number of important antioxidants. There are also other important antioxidant phytochemicals, which are plant compounds found mostly in fruits and vegetables. According to a review published in the journal Molecules, the two main kinds of antioxidant phytochemicals are polyphenols and carotenoids. For example, resveratrol is a polyphenol antioxidant found naturally in grapes, red wine, and some berries. Studies have shown that resveratrol supports a healthy inflammatory response, among other benefits.


Note: This article is not intended to offer medical advice. Consult with your health care provider for more specific information.