by Lori Budish

The term antioxidants probably sounds familiar, as they can be found on the labels of everything from chocolate to pomegranate juice to skin care products. One study after another has shown that antioxidants help boost the immune system, reduce fatigue, improve memory, avert blindness, ward off wrinkles, and prevent the risk of degenerative diseases like heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. How is it that these powerful nutrients can possibly fight off such a wide array of health problems?

In order to fully understand how antioxidants benefit your well being, it’s important to be familiar with free radicals. A free radical is a molecule that is missing an electron from its chemical structure, and is therefore highly reactive. In order to stabilize, a free radical steals an electron from other molecules in the body, turning it into a new free radical. These reactions damage, or oxidize cells, and this process can continue to generate more and more unstable products, leading to a chain reaction of free radical damage or oxidative stress.

Unless you’re a monk living in the Himalayas, eating pure food, breathing pristine air, and thinking Zen thoughts all day every day, it is impossible to avoid free radicals. We are constantly being bombarded by negative elements in our environment like pollution, pesticides, UV rays and food contaminants, but natural bodily processes such as metabolism, inflammation, and stress can also cause free radical formation. If your body does not get adequate protection, free radicals can become rampant, causing cells and DNA to perform poorly. The damage caused by excess free radicals plays a major role in accelerating the aging process, and is associated with at least 50 chronic diseases.

Thankfully our bodies have a way of dealing with these harmful electron snatchers, they are super heroes called antioxidants! Antioxidants are nature’s way of providing your cells with adequate defense against attack from free radicals. Antioxidants not only have the ability to protect our cells from free radical damage, but also have the ability to repair cells that have already been stressed or damaged. As long as you have an adequate supply of antioxidants to fight against free radicals, your body has protection against everyday exposure to pollutants, aging, and stress.

Just about all the substances that provide antioxidant action come from the foods we eat. The best sources of antioxidants are plants, although animal sources can be rich in antioxidants, too. Plants produce antioxidants, or take them up from the soil, to protect themselves as they turn sunlight into energy. Each plant part produces its own assortment of antioxidant chemicals, and these plant chemicals are what protect the human body from oxidative stress. The antioxidants we get from food include vitamins A, C, E, minerals zinc and selenium, and many other substances from plants that are known collectively as phytonutrients. There are a few antioxidants that do not come from food, and are naturally produced by our bodies. These include glutathione, alpha-lipoic acid, and CoQ10, all which decrease with aging. Do not despair, antioxidants work together and are able to regenerate other antioxidants, which makes it especially important to get a wide array for optimal benefits. Also for this reason, it’s best to get antioxidants from food rather than supplementation. Eating a balanced, unprocessed diet of sustainably raised meat, colorful fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, will provide your body with the essential nutrients and antioxidants it requires to maintain optimal health. The foods with the greatest antioxidant value are the ones with the deepest colors: greens, blues, purples, reds, oranges, and yellows, so each meal should be all about eating the rainbow.

A few of my favorite antioxidant foods are:

Blueberries are one of my all time favorite foods. I could delightfully devour a pint of blueberries easily in one sitting. These dark blue berries are full of antioxidants including vitamin C and anthocyanins, the colorful antioxidant pigments that give many foods their wonderful shades of blue, purple, and red. Research shows that blueberries offer whole body antioxidant support. I recommend eating blueberries fresh or frozen to get the best nutrient value. Enjoy them just as they are or blend into a smoothie.

 Green tea and black tea are derived from the same plant, but it’s the compounds found in green tea that contain antioxidant activity. Epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG, is the active antioxidant polyphenol in green tea that is shown to prevent against many types of cancers including cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, and breast and prostrate cancer.

Turmeric is the bright yellow spice that is a common ingredient in curry, and has been used for hundreds of years as a powerful medicine. Curcumin is the component in turmeric that offers anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Curcumin has been shown to be effective at offering protection against a wide ray of health problems such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, colon and prostrate cancer, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer’s, and by lowering cholesterol and improving liver function. Turmeric is a great addition to dressings and sauces, lentil dishes, or sauteed cauliflower.

Spinach is an excellent source of antioxidant nutrients including vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, zinc, and selenium. Spinach has been shown to lower the risk of numerous health problems related to oxidative stress. For example our blood vessels are especially susceptible to oxidative stress, and intake of spinach has been associated with decreased risk of atherosclerosis and high blood pressure. Spinach salads are a classic and easy meal or side dish, or add spinach to a soup or omelet.

Brazil Nuts are the richest and most reliable food source of selenium. Just one Brazil nut can provide more than the daily recommended value of this important trace mineral. Like most nuts, Brazil nuts are also a good source of Zinc and vitamin E. Brazil nuts are great added to fruit and vegetable salads, yogurt, granola, or trail mix, although my favorite way to enjoy them is made into a vegan alternative to parmesan that can be sprinkled on popcorn or pasta.

Our bodies evolved to take advantage of protective substances found in the foods available to us. Of these, the most research has been done on antioxidants, and each day scientists are discovering more amazing ways antioxidants keep us alive and well. Are antioxidants the key to eternal youth? Probably not, but they do play a very positive role in protecting our cells from damage that leads to aging and disease. Do your body a favor and make sure you are benefiting from the protective power of antioxidants by including them in every meal you eat, and every product you put on your skin.