Your body is under constant attack. The elements, bacteria, viruses and pollution all take a toll on your health. No matter how healthy your lifestyle, every cell in your body is constantly bombarded by harmful chemicals called free radicals. Free radicals are the chemical byproducts of metabolism. They steal electrons from the atoms of substances in the body, which then alters the way that substance behaves in the body. This electron theft results in a chemical attack on the DNA in your cells and alteration of how cells function. They can even cause LDL (bad cholesterol) to adhere to the walls of your arteries. Free radicals might be inevitable, but we can protect ourselves against the harmful effects of these destructive chemicals.
Antioxidants defend your cells against the damaging effects of free radicals. Antioxidants freely give electrons to free radicals, which prevents them from stealing electrons from other substances in the body. Some of the antioxidant nutrients that rid your body of free radicals include vitamins C and E, selenium, manganese and flavonoids. Antioxidants are found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. If you eat a balanced diet that includes fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grain breads and crackers, you are probably getting a good supply of antioxidants. Dietary supplements are less effective in providing the antioxidants your body needs. See your doctor before you decide to take over-the-counter antioxidant vitamin and mineral supplements to make sure they are safe for you.
The best way to supply your body with antioxidants is to eat a balanced diet that includes fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. You need between 5 and 10 servings of fruits and vegetables every day for good nutrition. Many vitamin and mineral supplements do provide antioxidant nutrients, such as flavonoids and lycopenes. To get the antioxidant benefits of vitamin E, eat leafy green vegetables such as lettuce, spinach and kale. Legumes, nuts and seeds are also good sources of natural vitamin E. Whole grains such as wheat, oats and brown rice, soybeans and sweet potatoes are also rich in vitamin E. Most all colorful fruits and vegetables provide vitamin E. Select fruits and vegetables that are orange, red and dark green to be sure you are getting an adequate supply of vitamin E in your diet.
Carotenoids, including beta-carotene, are also antioxidant nutrients that help fight disease. Apricots, beets, broccoli, carrots, green peppers, mangos, greens, peaches, citrus fruits, tomatoes and watermelon are all good sources of carotenoids. Vitamin C is revered as an immune system boosting nutrient. It’s also a good antioxidant, too. You can get a good supply of vitamin C from foods, such as citrus fruits, melons like cantaloupe and honeydew, and berries and broccoli. Colorful foods including red peppers, strawberries and tomatoes are also a good source of vitamin C. Mangos, kiwi, pumpkins and sunflower seeds are also good choices to get enough vitamin C in your diet. Trace minerals also have antioxidant properties to help prevent disease caused by free radicals. Zinc is found in red meat, beans, seafood, shellfish, whole grains and dairy foods. Selenium is another antioxidant trace mineral found in tuna, beef, poultry and whole grains.
Clinical trials regarding the role of antioxidants and heart disease are mixed and inconclusive. However, antioxidants may help to reduce your risk of heart disease if combined with a low-fat, healthy diet and regular exercise. You’ve probably heard that a glass of red wine is good for your heart. There is some evidence that a glass of wine with your dinner may benefit your heart. Grapes provide your body with polyphenols, which includes the antioxidants resveratrol and flavonoids. Purple and dark red grapes contain more antioxidants than green and white grapes. It’s best to eat whole grapes, but grape juices and even red wine can provide the antioxidant benefits of resveratrol and flavonoids. Grape juices, grapes and red wine may also help reduce LDL cholesterol, maintain healthy blood pressure, reduce the risk of blood clots and prevent free radical damage to blood vessels in your heart.
Cancer and Antioxidants
In addition to environmental factors such as pollution, cigarette smoke and excessive alcohol consumption, the damaging effects of free radicals can over time cause damage to cells and possibly lead to cancer. The clinical evidence about the protective effects of antioxidants remains largely inconclusive, but there is some evidence that the cell protection afforded by antioxidants, in combination with a healthy diet and exercise, may reduce your risk of developing cancer. There is strong clinical evidence that selenium reduces the risk of skin, colon, lung and prostate cancer. Selenium is a trace mineral and a component of antioxidant enzymes that clean up free radicals in your cells. Eating foods rich in selenium may help to reduce your risk of some types of cancer.
The antioxidants vitamin E, vitamin C, zinc and beta-carotene help to protect against age-related macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is an age-related eye disease that can result in blindness. Antioxidant carotenoids, especially lutein, help protect against this disease. Dark green leafy vegetables, including spinach and kale, are rich in lutein and may provide benefits to eye health. It’s not clear whether over-the-counter vitamin and mineral supplements provide any benefit to those suffering from age-related macular degeneration.
Free radicals do contribute to disease, including cancer, heart disease and macular degeneration, but you shouldn’t rely on antioxidants alone to prevent disease. Antioxidants are not a cure for disease either. Antioxidants can help protect your cells from much of the damage caused by free radicals if you eat a healthy diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and low-fat dairy foods. It’s best to try to get all the nutrients your body needs from the foods you eat. Get plenty of exercise, drink water and get adequate sleep to keep your body healthy.