Antioxidants: Nature's Greatest Superheroes?



Antioxidant became a buzzword in the early 1990’s when scientists began to suspect that free-radical damage was involved in the early stages of cancer and other chronic medical conditions. They noticed that people who consumed diets high in antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables seemed to have fewer instances of coronary heart disease, cancer, and other serious illnesses. Clinical trials were enacted to test these theories, and antioxidant supplements such as Vitamin E and beta-carotene were tested for their roles against these medical conditions.

Before substantial research was able to be completed, antioxidants and their benefits were glorified, with food, supplement, and skin care industries taking a major role in promoting their benefits. This group of compounds has been touted as everything from disease-fighting powerhouses, to the antidote to aging. But there is also some evidence to the contrary. So, what are antioxidants and why are they so important? Are they really nature’s greatest superheroes, or simply a huge marketing ploy?

Are antioxidants just marketing buzz words?

What is an antioxidant anyway?

By definition, an antioxidant is a molecule that inhibits the oxidation of other molecules. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that can produce free radicals, which leads to chain reactions that may damage cells. Antioxidants such as thiols or ascorbic acid, found in Vitamin C, terminate these chain reactions. In short, they’re specifically designed to prevent or delay cell damage by removing free radicals from the bloodstream.

An antioxidant can be natural or synthetic. They are found in a variety of foods, skin care products, and supplements. Our bodies naturally produce both free radicals and the antioxidants to counteract their damaging effects. But due to our environments and lifestyles, the free radicals can far outnumber naturally occurring antioxidants. To maintain the delicate balance, antioxidants from external sources are necessary to obtain the maximum benefits.

Oxidation & Free Radicals

So what exactly is Oxidation? It is a natural, normal chemical process that takes place in the body, but can be accelerated by factors such as stress, smoking, and alcohol.

When there are disruptions in the natural oxidation process, unstable and potentially damaging molecules called free radicals are created. Free radicals are atoms, or groups of atoms, that contain an odd number of electrons. They can be formed when certain molecules interact with oxygen and in turn, start a chain of damaging chemical reactions. One of the most significant dangers to the human body is their potential to react with cellular components like DNA or the cell membrane, which will cause cells to function poorly or die.

When the body is incapable of keeping up with the detoxification of the free radicals, the system becomes overwhelmed, causing oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been associated with numerous health conditions including anxiety, insomnia, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and more. Common symptoms of oxidative stress include fatigue, memory loss, muscle or joint pain, blurred vision, headaches and sensitivity to noise. To reduce oxidative stress avoid exposure to unnecessary oxidation such as smoking, sun, and excessive activity and increase your natural antioxidant intake.

Natural Sources of Antioxidants

To add antioxidants to your diet, simply chase the rainbow! Incorporating colorful fruits and vegetables into each meal is the easiest way to get a variety of antioxidants into the body. Each color of food provides it’s own unique antioxidant benefits. Orange foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, and peaches provide one type of antioxidant, while green foods like spinach and pears provide another. We’ve compiled a helpful list of antioxidants and their sources at the end of this article.

Antioxidants and the Skin

Without antioxidants, free radicals can cause a lot of damage to your skin. Photo-oxidative damage occurs when the skin is exposed to high levels of ultraviolet light. This damage is induced by the formation of different types of reactive species of oxygen, including singlet oxygen, superoxide radicals, and peroxide radicals. These free radicals damage cellular lipids, proteins, and DNA, and they are considered to be the primary contributors to sunburn, premature aging, photodermatoses, and skin cancers.

While the best way to protect the skin against sun damage is to wear sunscreen, antioxidants like those found in blueberries, bell peppers, avocados, onions and sweet potatoes aid the skin in its renewal process by supplying vital nutrients that protect it against aging and sun damage.

Due to the antioxidant hype, more and more creams and cosmetics feature Vitamins A, C, and E and coenzymes such as alpha-lipoic acid and coenzyme Q10. While many questions remain, there is evidence to suggest that some antioxidants, like vitamins C and E in a serum form, encourage cell regeneration.

Antioxidants and Vision

The most promising area of antioxidant research is vision. A 2001 study from the National Eye Institute found that a combination of the antioxidants beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, and the mineral zinc reduced the risk of developing advanced stages of age-related macular degeneration. Other studies have shown that antioxidant vitamins may decrease the development or progression of cataracts.

Medical Concerns

Many studies have shown mixed or no results. High-doses of antioxidant supplements may be harmful in some cases. The results of some studies have linked the use of high-dose beta-carotene supplements to an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers while high-doses of vitamin E supplements have been linked to increased risks of hemorrhagic stroke and prostate cancer, and may increase the risk of bleeding in people who are taking anticoagulant drugs.

In 2014, Dr. Martin Bergö, Ph.D., of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, conducted a study in mouse models of human lung cancer. The researchers found that adding the antioxidants N-acetylcysteine (NAC) or vitamin E to the diet of mice with small lung tumors substantially increased the number, size, and stage of the tumors. Additional work showed that the same antioxidants reduced levels of ROS and DNA damage in cancer cells, and essentially eliminated expression of the gene p53—a tumor suppressor gene that is typically activated by DNA damage. It was these findings Dr. Bergö felt provided a plausible explanation for why the male smokers who received antioxidants in the earlier 1994 Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention Study had a higher incidence of lung cancer than those who received a placebo.

Antioxidant supplements may also interact with certain medications. There is conflicting evidence on the effects of taking antioxidant supplements during cancer treatment. Some studies suggest that this may be beneficial, while others suggest that it may be harmful. The National Cancer Institute recommends that people who are being treated for cancer consult with their healthcare provider before taking any kind of supplements.

In conclusion, decades of research shows that antioxidants have many great benefits, but do consider the source. While the best way to incorporate antioxidants into your diet is through wholesome, natural foods, there is little evidence to suggest that antioxidant supplements are effective. A diet rich in antioxidants may help protect your body against getting certain diseases, but there is little to no evidence that they can aid in the treatment of any serious illness.

Antioxidants are present in a variety of skincare products and carry many benefits. It all comes down to finding what products work best for your skin and personal preference. Click here to learn more about finding products for your skin type.

Antioxidants in Food and their Sources:

Allium sulphur compounds - leeks, onions, and garlic.
Anthocyanins - eggplant, grapes, and berries.

Astaxanthin -  wild Pacific sockeye salmon, krill, algae, red trout, shrimp, crab, and lobster
Beta-carotene - pumpkin, mangoes, apricots, carrots, spinach and parsley.
Catechins - red wine and tea.
Copper - seafood, lean meat, milk, and nuts.
Cryptoxanthins - red capsicum, pumpkin and mangoes.
Flavonoids - tea, green tea, citrus fruits, red wine, onion, and apples.
Indoles - cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.
Isoflavonoids - soybeans, tofu, lentils, peas, and milk.
Lignans - sesame seeds, bran, whole grains, and vegetables.
Lutein - leafy greens like spinach, and corn.
Lycopene - tomatoes, pink grapefruit, and watermelon.
Manganese - seafood, lean meat, milk, and nuts.
Polyphenols - thyme and oregano.
Selenium - seafood, offal, lean meat and whole grains.
Vitamin C - oranges, blackcurrants, kiwi, mangoes, broccoli, spinach, capsicum, and strawberries.
Vitamin E - vegetable oils, avocados, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Zinc - seafood, lean meat, milk, and nuts.
Zoochemicals - red meat, offal, and fish. Also derived from the plants animals eat.


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