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What Do Antioxidants Do? Facts You May Not Know

Blueberries antioxidants

1.13.21

BY: DR. KYON HOOD, MD

From skin care products to mock-tail elixirs, we hear about antioxidants every other day in our lives. Except, there is actually a ton of information and benefits to them that aren’t common knowledge. First things first, antioxidants are molecular compounds that inhibit oxidation. Oxidation is the chemical process in the body where substances gain oxygen and lose hydrogen causing a loss of electrons. This chemical reaction produces free radicals, which are the unstable atoms that can damage cells and cause illness.

From skincare products to mock-tail elixirs, we hear about antioxidants every other day in our lives. However, there is actually a wealth of information about these compounds that isn’t common knowledge. In this post, we’ll walk you through some of the lesser-known facts about antioxidants.

What Are Antioxidants?

First things first – let’s discuss the basics of what antioxidants are and what they do. You’ve heard that these molecules are important, but understanding how they work is essential.

Antioxidants: The Basics

Antioxidants are a group of compounds that protect against oxidative stress in your body. Their primary target is the harmful effects of free radicals – molecules with unpaired electrons that can negatively affect your health in the long run.

Your body produces some of these “stress-inducing” compounds naturally, while others come from the food you eat, exposure to sunlight, pollution, and other external sources often referred to as “environmental stressors.”

We like to think of all of the antioxidants that your body needs as a team of superheroes – and excessive free radical activity is the supervillain. One particular antioxidant on its own can’t defeat all of that free radical activity and restore balance to your body, but all of them can if they work together as a team!

Where Do Antioxidants Come From?

Your body primarily gets antioxidants from food and supplements, though it does produce some on its own, such as CoQ10.

Each antioxidant has its own unique chemical structure, which means that you’ll need a variety of these compounds to support your overall health. Some of the most important antioxidants include vitamins like vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin A, and vitamin E, among many others.

The antioxidants that you get from your diet, along with the ones that your body naturally produces, act as electron donors to stabilize the otherwise unstable atoms in your body. Each antioxidant has its own set of chemical behaviors and plays a different role in your physical functioning.

In other words, one single antioxidant can’t do what all of these compounds could do together – you need a variety of antioxidants to maintain good health.

A few examples of antioxidants you probably consume everyday include:

Vitamin A: This antioxidant often shows up on the ingredient lists for skincare products, usually in the form of retinol. However, you’ll also find vitamin A in whole foods including milk, cheese, eggs, organ meats like liver, and fish.

Beta-Carotene: This is one antioxidant you’ve probably heard of due to its abundance in yellow or orange produce. There’s plenty of beta-carotene in carrots, mangoes, bell peppers, and many other bright-colored fruits and veggies.

Selenium: Found in poultry, dairy products, and chicken, selenium is an important antioxidant that your body needs in order to function. The best dietary source for selenium is Brazil nuts.

What Do Antioxidants Do?

As the name suggests, antioxidants work to protect against oxidative stress.

Oxidation occurs within your body as a natural result of your everyday biological processes and can create unstable molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROSs), also referred to as free radicals. Free radicals, when not kept in check by antioxidants, can cause oxidative stress, which is a driving factor behind cell damage that leads to aging and the development of disease.

Oxidative stress occurs when there aren’t enough antioxidants in your body to balance out free radical activity.


Causes of Free Radicals

There are threats against our bodies every day, from viruses and lack of nutrients, to free radicals. Our bodies produce reactive oxygen species (i.e free radicals) as a reaction to our food being turned into energy, exercising, and even breathing. Free radicals aren’t initially bad for our health. Except, at high levels, free radicals become harmful to the body and begin to attack healthy cells. This can lead to a condition called oxidative stress.

Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress is the imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants. In fact, it has been researched that oxidative stress is a partial cause of many types of cancers, inflammatory conditions like arthritis, ischemic diseases (heart diseases and strokes), hypertension and preeclampsia, neurological disorders (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy), and the acceleration of aging.

Furthermore, specific lifestyle choices lead to increased production of free radicals such as exposure to environmental pollution (cigarette smoke, air pollution, chemical solvents), alcohol intake, ways of cooking (oils, smoked meats, fats), certain drugs, and radiation.

Benefits of Antioxidants

Overall, a high level of free radicals damages your cells. Antioxidants protect those cells. Now, while that point may seem minute it plays a role in a bigger, healthier picture.

Disease Fighting

Maintaining a diet with high levels of antioxidants can help reduce the risk for many of the conditions and diseases mentioned previously (heart disease, certain cancers, etc.) In fact, all over the world, research continues about the protective state of antioxidants. Places such as The National Institute of Health, Institute of Clinical Science, National Cancer Institute, and American Heart Association have dedicated studies to discovering the power of antioxidants.

Skin

Antioxidants protect the skin by fighting free radicals and maintaining the health of existing cells. Along with protecting your skin, simultaneously, they reduce pigmentation and the production of wrinkles from UV damage. Research shows that antioxidants aid in the protection against ultraviolet (UV) damage. This research has contributed to the increased creation of many antioxidant-based skin serums.

Hair

Firstly, antioxidants increase your immune system, fight sun damage, and protect cuticles to maintain hair strength. They increase blood circulation and nutrients throughout the body promoting hair growth.

Aging

In the aging process, research has shown that age-associated functional losses are due to the accumulation of oxidative damage produced by free radicals. Subsequently, while research is still going on, it is believed that antioxidants have a positive impact on the reduction of oxidative damage due to their ability to fight free radicals. Therefore, the effects of aging become curved.

Types of Antioxidants:

Vitamin C

Vitamin C cannot be stored in the body naturally, because it is a water-soluble vitamin. So, we need to consume vitamin c through food or supplements every day. Vitamin c is needed for the growth and repair of tissue throughout the body.

Daily Recommended amount: 75-90mg for adults. 

Found in: oranges, blackcurrants, kiwi, mangoes, broccoli, spinach, capsicum, brussel sprouts, kale, papaya, bell peppers, and strawberries

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin found naturally and synthetically. It is a radical scavenger, giving hydrogen atoms to free radicals to stabilize them.

Daily recommended amount: 15mg for adults

Found in: vegetable oils, boiled spinach, avocados, nuts, seeds, and whole grains

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin important for eyesight, immunity, and reproduction.

Daily recommended amount: 700-900 mcg

Found in: liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk, and egg yolks

Beta-Carotene

A plant pigment that converts to vitamin a. Beta-carotene contributes to better cognitive function.

Daily recommended amount: Included in vitamin a recommendation

Found in: pumpkin, mangoes, apricots, carrots, asparagus, spinach, peaches, and parsley

Lutein

A carotenoid vitamin linked to beta-carotene and vitamin a. Known as the “eye vitamin”, Lutein helps prevent eye diseases.

Daily recommended amount: 6-12 mg

Found in: green, leafy vegetables like spinach and swiss chard, and corn

Lycopene

Another carotenoid vitamin researched linked lycopene to potentially helping heart health and other cancers.

Daily recommended amount: 8-21 mg

Found in: tomatoes, pink grapefruit, oranges, squash, and watermelon

Selenium

Selenium is actually a mineral found in soils but has antioxidant properties. This antioxidant plays a key role in the body's metabolism.

Daily recommended amount: 55 mcg

Found in: seafood, offal, brazil nuts, lean meat, and whole grains

Glutathione

Glutathione is made up of three amino acids, glutamine, glycine, and cysteine. This amino-acid-based antioxidant is vital for preventing and optimizing cellular function.

Daily recommended amount: N/A (not enough research)

Found in: onions, garlic, avocados, asparagus, and watermelon

How To Up Your Intake:

Healthy Diet

Maintaining a healthy diet increases your daily intake of antioxidants. By just including a fruit or a vegetable with every meal or snack increases your body's antioxidant levels naturally become higher and healthier. A little tip, if you are having trouble remembering which foods have which antioxidants then just try to bring some color to your plate. Brighter foods tend to have higher antioxidant levels. 

Supplements

It is important to seek out natural sources of antioxidants, but there are supplement options for many different antioxidants. Antioxidant supplements are concentrated forms of free-radical fighting antioxidants such as daily vitamins, powder formulas, and drip therapy. However, while supplements are beneficial to your intake of antioxidants, professionals recommend not take them in high doses.

New (& Fun!) Antioxidant Products

Antioxidants now extend beyond your usual daily vitamins. In fact, they are now included in skin serums, anti-aging products, hair products, vitamin c drinks, smoothies, and moisturizers. For example, some of our favorites are the vegan Acure Brightening Vitamin C & Ferulic Acid Oil-Free Serum which uplifts your skin, as well as the Kin Euphoric mock-tails. These mock-tails are made from adaptogens, nootropics, and Botanics that give you a healthful restorative boost. The benefits of antioxidant products are worth taking a dive into.

So, In Short:

What do antioxidants do? They protect our bodies from illness caused by an imbalance of free radicals in our system. It is important to maintain a proper intake of antioxidants. Whether through a healthy diet, lifestyle changes, or supplements, it is needed in order to prevent diseases and oxidative stress. There are many different kinds of antioxidants with their own individual qualities, but they work best when combined altogether. When it comes to antioxidants, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

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