Antioxidants protect us. They are our bodies’ natural defences against oxidant agents that damage or destroy our tissues, initiating disease and accelerating normal aging. Our defence team of antioxidants includes enzymes, minerals and nutrients such as vitamins C and E, coenzyme Q10, alpha-lipoic acid, glutathione, taurine, carotenoids and flavonoids.
Whenever these antioxidant defences are breached, whether through mineral or nutrient deficiencies, or simply excessive oxidative challenge, oxidative reactions self-propagate and explode out of control, mutating DNA, crippling enzymes and disrupting membranes. As cells disintegrate, oxidative products leak out of cells to travel around the body and attack at other sites. As they escape antioxidant restraints, oxidative processes can amplify into inflammation.
The Inflammatory Response
Inflammation is the immune system’s response to tissue injury. It eliminates the offending agent, removes the debris and initiates healing. However, the immune system employs oxidative activity to do its work. If oxidation gets out of balance, inflammation can cascade out of control. Long-term, chronic inflammation is implicated in atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) and other cardiovascular diseases, various cancers, intestinal malabsorption conditions, cataracts, macular degeneration, osteoporosis, prostate hypertrophy and multiple degenerative brain diseases, including Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and dementia.
The entire spectrum of environmental pollutants (including petroleum derivatives, solvents, heavy metals), lifestyle factors (smoking, alcoholism, drug abuse) and toxic pharmaceuticals (acetaminophen, for example) are oxidant agents. The pathogens HIV-1, hepatitis viruses, mycoplasmas, fungi and the intestinal bacterium Helicobacter pylori and Giardia trigger tissue oxidation that can readily progress to inflammation. Excessive ultraviolet exposure, chronic emotional stress and food intolerances also contribute to our cumulative oxidative stress. As these diverse agents converge on our antioxidant defences, they can overwhelm our limited adaptive capacities. The result: accelerated aging and chronic ill health.
A healthy antioxidant defence system strives to conserve nutritional antioxidants through metabolic recycling. However, the typical SAD (standard American diet) is clearly not supplying enough antioxidants to forestall the obvious epidemic of oxidation-related disease. Daily living in the real world places a “burn” on our antioxidant reserves. Dr. Robert Cathcart, foremost clinical authority on vitamin C, speaks of a “100-gram cold” so severe it can consume 100 grams (not milligrams) of vitamin C in a mere few days. We cannot replace this from food alone. Integrative practitioners and academic researchers agree that everyone can benefit from supplementing with antioxidants. The better the antioxidant contributions from our foods and the more supplements we take (see box), the more prepared we can be against disease.
Boosting Antioxidant Reserves
As health-care costs continue to soar, it’s important to seriously consider supplementing your foods with antioxidants. Take coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), for example. This is a vitamin-like antioxidant necessary for energy production; it’s proven to lower gum disease, support healthy immunity and boost muscle performance. Any insufficiency of CoQ10 can endanger the heart. Further, statin drugs commonly prescribed for lowering cholesterol can block the body’s intrinsic CoQ10 synthesis, making CoQ10 supplementation even more imperative.
The carotenoids are, like vitamin E, fat-soluble antioxidants. One of them lycopene seems to help against prostate cancer, lowering PSA (prostate-specific antigen, a marker for prostate problems) and prostate tumour size. Lutein, another carotenoid, is found concentrated in the retina, that thin layer at the back of the eye that takes high doses of oxidative light radiation. Lutein is being researched for its effect against retinal macular degeneration, a common eye problem.
Plants are a treasure trove of substances called phytochemicals, many of which are potent antioxidants. More than 4,000 known flavonoids, including oligomeric proanthocyanidins polyphenols and tannins, benefit the circulation, very likely through multiple-action mechanisms.
Rosmarinic acid (RA), extracted from a strain of oregano, is also found in thyme and rosemary all plants traditionally revered for their medicinal properties. RA appears to have anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties, while its high antioxidant potency has proved useful for stabilizing vegetable oils against frying.
Antioxidants are an intensively researched, large family of nutrients with profound nutritional applications. By searching out super-antioxidant foods, beverages and supplements, we keep our eyes on the prize: long life with optimal health and freedom from disease.
Newly confirmed links between inflammation and degenerative disease suggest antioxidants might belong at the cutting edge of integrative health management.
Best Dietary Sources of Antioxidants
Foods: apples, avocados, bananas, beans, beets, berries (cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries), broccoli, buckwheat flour, cherries, grapefruit, grapes (especially red), kale, kelp, kiwis, lemons, olives and olive oil, oranges, papaya, pineapple, plums, prunes, raisins, red peppers, sea buckthorn and other marine algae, seeds and sprouts, spinach.
Spices: cinnamon, cloves, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, onions, oregano, rosemary, tea (green, black and white), thyme, tumeric.
Herbs: Standardized extracts of:bilberry, ginkgo biloba, grapeseed, hawthorn, milk thistle, pine bark.
Supplemental Nutrients: alpha-lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, copper, cysteine, iron, manganese, selenium, taurine, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc.
Your Body’s Defence Team
Your body uses oxygen to make energy. But within your cells, oxygen also produces free radicals, substances that have unpaired electrons. Their need to pair their electrons drives these free radicals to steal single electrons from neighbouring molecules and, as a result, endanger our biochemical processes. In addition, various toxins steal pairs of electrons; these are called oxidants. Free radicals combined with other oxidants can pose such intense oxidative challenges that humans have an antioxidant defence system just to manage them.
Modern living creates diverse oxidative challenges for the body. Toxic environmental and food-borne pollutants, infectious agents, excessive radiation, pharmaceutical and “recreational” drugs, even emotional stress, load on top of poor lifestyle and diet to intensify our total oxidative load and deplete our antioxidant resources. Antioxidant supplements counteract free-radical damage and replenish enzyme cofactors nutritional insurance against disease and premature death.