Antioxidants - Why all the Hype?


By Nancy Smorch

So what’s all the buzz about antioxidants?

I’m sure you’ve heard the term “antioxidants” thrown around quite a bit these past few years.  Food companies have definitely capitalized on the public’s hunger for them.

But do you really know what they are and why they are good for you?

Let me take a few moments and break the science behind antioxidants down for you:

Our bodies naturally produce molecules called “free radicals” as a by-product of many metabolic functions.  It’s a perfectly normal process.  But what are these “free radicals?"  They are molecules that have lost one of their electrons.

This makes them very unstable and they “wander” around our body looking to steal an electron from another perfectly content molecule - and they aren’t too picky about where they get that extra electron.  The problem is, that when they steal an electron from another molecule, this molecule, in turn, breaks into two molecules that both now need electrons, and so on.

So now  you have all of these unstable free radicals stealing electrons all over your body.  They leave behind a trail of damaged cells - cells that were once healthy.  These damaged cells can’t function properly and thus can't perform the tasks they were designed to perform.

This is a problem in and of itself, but to illustrate, when it steals electrons from the cell membranes (which are particularly succeptible to this), the membrane starts to let in things that shouldn’t get through, and lets out things that shouldn’t be escaping.

These free radicals can also steal electrons from the membranes around the organelles inside your cells, messing with the proper production of energy and waste disposal.  They can even attack the membrane of the nucleus and get access to the DNA molecules.  And when this happens, the cells die, they lose their ability to replicate, or worse, replicate abnormally (a mutation which leads to cancer).

Now, again, the production of free radicals is a normal process for the body, and the body actually produces antioxidants enzymes which take care of these free radicals by giving them an extra electron.  By giving them an extra electron, the free radicals become stable and they don’t go around destroying other molecules and cells.

The challenge, then, occurs when we have too many free radicals in our body and our body can’t produce enough of these enzymes to neutralize them.  Unfortunately the way we live today, we have tremendous exposure to things that produce free radicals, and our bodies can’t keep up with them.  This contributes massively to the aging process and a number of degenerative diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, arthritis, inflammation, organ and tissue damage, allergies, and MS, to name a few.

There are basically two ways to manage this situation.

The first is to manage our exposure to free radicals.

The second is to make sure we are getting enough antioxidants into our body to combat these free radicals.

So how do we manage our exposure to free radicals?  Free radicals are found in poor drinking water, the Standard American Diet (SAD: too much sugar, processed foods, chemicals, additives, and toxins in the food and not enough nutrients), air pollution, and radiation.

A good plan to counteract these influences would be the following:

Eat organic WHOLE foods

Drink purified water

Avoid exposure to chemicals (including perfumes, cleaning supplies, smoke)

Limit exposure to air pollution

Minimize X-rays (only when absolutely necessary)

What are some ways we could make sure we are getting high amounts of antioxidants into our bodies?

By eating plenty of dark-colored foods (think blueberries, pomegranates, etc.)

Eating a variety of fresh organic whole foods, herbs and spices.  

Essential oils are also high in antioxidants - especially clove, myrrh, and fennel.

Note that there is some controversy over the role and balance of free radicals and antioxidants.  Keep in mind that we Americans tend to gravitate toward “too much of a good thing."  So, are too many antioxidants just as bad as too few?  The jury is still out on that one, and probably will be for quite some time.

Like most things, everything in moderation.

But in reality, you can’t go wrong by following the guidelines listed above.  And, as always, pay attention to how you feel when you eat certain foods or make changes in your diet or supplements.  Tune into your body, it will gladly talk to  you, if you will listen.