Antioxidants are key to your health and they are widely considered to help control how fast you age by fighting the damage done by free radicals, which are at the centre of age related deterioration. The fact that antioxidants are so complex can lead to confusion about which ones are best to take, in this post we hope to shed some light on it.
Before we understand antioxidants we need to understand free radicals
The idea of free radicals was first put forward in 1954 by a biogerontologist named Denham Harman, while he was researching an explanation for aging.
Free radicals are produced by the body as a result of normal metabolism and energy production, when you have inflammation in your body and when you exercise. They are also produced when the body is exposed to environmental toxins - e.g cigarette smoke, chemicals, sunlight, natural and man-made radiation, and can also be a key feature of pharmaceutical drugs.
A free radical is a highly reactive molecule missing one or more electrons. It's this missing election that is largely responsible for the process of biological oxidation.
The 'partial molecules' try to replace their missing parts by attacking other molecules (referred to as oxidation reactions) and is essentially 'biological rusting' i.e similar to what happens to an iron bar when it's left in water.
When free radicals go about stealing electrons from proteins in your body it results in damage to your DNA and other cell structures. The biological damage becomes severe when free radicals start a snowball effect in which molecule after molecule steals from its neighbour, each one becoming a new free radical once it's been robbed of its electron. Examples of diseases thought to be a result of free radical damage within the body include cancer, atherosclerosis, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's disease, and cataracts.
Antioxidants are the body's defence against free radical damage
This is where antioxidants come to the rescue. The body naturally utilises a wide variety of nutrients because of their antioxidant properties and makes antioxidant enzymes in order to control the damaging chain reactions mentioned above. Examples of these nutrients are vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenes, and lipoic acid, all being well-known and well-researched antioxidant nutrients.
There are different classifications of antioxidants
Antioxidants are classified in a number of different ways - to start with they can be non-enzymatic or enzymatic antioxidants. The body requires both non-enzymatic and enzymatic antioxidants because each one targets different types of cells and tissues for free radical scavenging.
- Non-enzymatic work by interrupting free radical chain reactions - they are found in foods and supplements are, in the main, non-enzymatic type and include vitamin C, vitamin E, plant polyphenols, carotenoids and glutathione (GSH).
- Enzymatic antioxidants work by breaking down and removing free radicals and must be produced in your body - in other words you can’t take enzymatic antioxidants in supplement form.
Another way antioxidants are classified is to group them according to whether they are soluble in water or in fats:
- Water-soluble (hydrophilic) antioxidants include vitamin C, glutathione, polyphenols and catechins.
- Lipid-soluble (hydrophobic) antioxidants include vitamins E, A, lipoic acid and cartenoids such as beta-carotene.
Free radicals can attack the cell contents which is watery or the cellular membrane which is fatty, so the cell need defenses for both. Further to this, when taken together, the efficacy of each type is enhanced even more.
The function of antioxidants also depends on its size:
- those that are small in molecular size tend to mop up or 'scavenge' free radicals and remove them through chemical reactions
- those of larger molecular size tend to be enzymes that absorb free radicals and prevent them from attacking the body's essential proteins.
Exercise can you increase your own antioxidants
Surprisingly, exercise is inflammatory and therefore it can actually increase the body's own production of antioxidants. High levels of prolonged and intense exercise can be a major source of oxidative stress on the body, however doing a wise amount in short bursts like High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can actually improve the body's capacity to produce antioxidants.
Which antioxidants do you need?
To combat and help neutralise damaging free radicals, you need to take as many different types of antioxidants from as many sources as possible. You need to make sure that you eat a wide variety of fruit and vegetables and reduce sugar intake to decrease antioxidant stress so that the ones you do take work better and last longer.
While a good diet is key to getting sufficient levels of antioxidants into the body, wisely selected supplements have also been shown to be highly beneficial in addition to good food choices. So if you'd like a recommended place to start then we think astaxanthin
) are amazing antioxidants and widely recognised for being so.
A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.