Antioxidants | What Are They?

Health and longevity will always be the main focus in my industry. Everyone is trying to bio-hack their body and how to market that to the world. Supplements do this, diets this, and exercises this. Hell, food, above all else, does this the most! There’s always a food that gets it’s shine in the limelight and proves it is the greatest superfood. One in particular, is the newest to take the scene: the antioxidant. Different foods have different nutrients, but some are filled with nutrients called antioxidants. These appear to be the gold standard of all things healthy on the internet today.

“Blueberries? Yeah those are healthy because they have antioxidants…but why are those good for us? Well, you know, they fight cancer and what not.”

That is usually how these conversations go. So, today we’re going to help you understand what antioxidants are, what they do, and whether supplementing them is different from getting them from whole foods. So sit down, get some blueberries, and lets do this.

What are they?

Simply put, they’re compounds that inhibit oxidation. Oxidation is a chemical process that creates free radicals. Free radicals are atoms or molecules that have an unpaired electron and this makes them highly reactive with other cells. They cause damage by stealing elections from structures like DNA, proteins, and cell membranes (this is called oxidation). So antioxidants prevent this chain reaction by giving electrons to these free radicals and neutralizing them.

Oxidative stress has been linked to diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, macular degeneration, and many more. There is a hypothesis that free radical caused oxidative stress is the reason for a lot of these aging related diseases. That can be found here

So, in theory, taking in more antioxidants should improve us in every way possible right? Well, it’s complicated.

The most widely studied antioxidants are vitamins A, C, and E. Small trials here and there would show positive results with supplementation and lowered risk or cardiovascular disease. When a meta-analysis was conducted on all studies put together there were disappointing results. Some studies even showed a significant increase of all cause mortality. So, clearly more of one type of antioxidant isn’t going to do the trick.

There are different types of antioxidants though, some showing promising results. Below are some of the most well known and where you find them:

  • Vitamin A: Dairy produce, eggs, and liver
  • Vitamin C: Most fruits and vegetables, especially berries, oranges, and bell peppers
  • Vitamin E: Nuts and seeds, sunflower and other vegetable oils, and green, leafy vegetables
  • Beta-carotene: Brightly colored fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, peas, spinach, and mangoes
  • Lycopene: Pink and red fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes and watermelon
  • Lutein: Green, leafy vegetables, corn, papaya, and oranges
  • Selenium: Rice, corn, wheat, and other whole grains, as well as nuts, eggs, cheese, and legumes

You'll see that these antioxidants are also found in nutrient dense foods. So when you try to get antioxidants from these foods, you get a ton of other nutrients along with it. This is why you see better results from diets rich in these foods vs diets supplemented with individual antioxidants.

Another thing to note is that antioxidants are not interchangeable. They each have a unique chemical property and function. They simply act as electron donors and this gives them the “antioxidant” label. So don’t think you can use the same antioxidant for everything in your body.

On a final note: this theme is becoming repetitive but if you truly want a wide variety of antioxidants it is best to get it from diet. You cannot rely on a specific supplement to help you with your general health. Now, different populations with specific diseases may benefit from a supplement. If you have a specific condition it is best to consult your doctor and see which antioxidant may be beneficial to you.

So eat healthy, eat variety, move often, enjoy life, and don’t worry about what's out of your own control. If you have any other questions relating to supplements, don’t hesitate to drop a question in the comment section below!