How to Protect Your Body and Mind with Antioxidants

Blueberries

Free Radicals’ Silent War on Your Health

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are a type of chemical that can be found naturally in foods. They’re known for fighting the negative effects of free radicals in the body. In fact, if it weren’t for free radicals, antioxidants wouldn’t be famous in the first place. 

Your body has a built-in antioxidant system that helps fight free radicals, but it can’t make all the antioxidants it needs by itself; You need to get some antioxidants from a healthy diet. 

What are free radicals?

Free radicals are highly reactive chemicals (similar to corrosive chemicals), and they can do a lot of damage to your body if not controlled [1]. Here’s a quick list of what they’re linked to:

  • Neurodegenerative diseases: Parkinson’s disease, dementia, etc. 
  • Physical changes related to aging: wrinkled and flaccid skin, graying hair, and hair loss 
  • Inflammatory and autoimmune diseases: arthritis, cancer, etc. 
  • Cardiovascular disease: strokes, heart attacks, etc. 
  • Age-related sight loss
  • Diabetes

Should I worry about free radicals?

Doctors in surgery

If you take a look at the numbers from developed countries, it becomes clear. 

Cancer and cardiovascular disease alone kill more people than all other causes of death combined; out of 100 people, about 65 will be killed by either disease [2]

And those are just the diseases that kill people outright. The other diseases and conditions linked to free radicals are life-altering… even though they won’t necessarily shorten life itself.  

Should you add antioxidants to your diet?

If your lifestyle is in perfect order, free radicals shouldn’t be a problem. But chances are that your body could use a boost from a healthy diet containing antioxidants. Any of the following could mean that you need more antioxidants in your diet:

1. You’re eating processed foods:

Processed flour in hands

Processed foods like breakfast cereals, whole wheat bread, and soda will punish the body. This happens when they dump sugar into your bloodstream faster than your body can handle. 

Short-term, the amount of free radicals in the blood jumps up during this blood sugar spike [3]. Long-term, processed foods are linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer [4]. In other words, that means a shorter life expectancy. 

2. Your diet lacks variety:

When you’re busy, it’s easy to get into a routine with the foods you eat. It saves you time, money, and mental effort of planning all your meals. 

But total regularity can be a problem if your diet is missing key antioxidants. It could mean that you’re missing the same nutrients, day after day. 

It’s a long-standing rule in nutrition sciences that getting a variety of foods from each food group will help with a balanced diet [5]. By mixing things up often, you’re not missing anything important. 

3. You don’t sleep well or enough:

Not sleeping enough and dozing off on the train

In experiments with rats, it doesn’t take long for free radicals to show up when the rats are deprived of sleep [6]. Deep sleep is when the body does heavy recovery from the natural buildup of free radicals in the body. 

It’s recommended that you sleep 7-9 hours a night, but good sleep isn’t just about how long you’re unconscious in bed [7]. Both short sleep duration and poor sleep quality are linked to a host of diseases and shorter life [8]

People who work late night shifts may be under particular stress from free radicals. Night shift work has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and many other diseases and disorders. 

4. You spend a lot of time in the sun:

Everyone’s pretty aware of the link between UV light and skin cancer, so it should come as no surprise that extra free radicals show up when you’re exposed to sunlight [9]

Sunburn is just inflammation triggered by your own body that helps kill off a layer of sun-damaged skin. That’s why it’s bright red; its red color comes from extra blood flow. And any time inflammation is present, you can rest assured you’ll find an abundance of free radicals. 

Even though you might use sunscreen, it doesn’t mean that you’re totally protected. All sunlight — not just the UV light from the sun — causes spikes in free radicals when your skin’s exposed [10].

5. Your home or work life is stressful:

Working at a computer

If you’re in a constant state of emotional stress, your body pumps out a set of stress hormones to work on your body. These stress hormones cause inflammation, which can lead to early aging and cancer if this happens over long periods of time [11]

6. Your workouts are intense:

Working out has a long list of benefits like longer life, improved mood, and reducing pain. 

But no health benefit is without its cost. When you exhaust your energy or break down muscle during an intense workout, you’ll trigger a spike of free radicals in your system [12]. This happens primarily during the early part of the recovery phase. 

One or two workouts probably won’t cause any lasting problems, but repeated intense exercise can create cumulative problems related to free radicals. 

7. You eat a high-calorie diet:

Making cookies with processed and refined carbohydrates like sugar and flour

When people with a high body mass index reduce their calories, a quick plunge in free radicals follows [13]

Conversely, every time you take in a high amount of calories, the body increases the metabolism to keep up with the load. This is a high-stress job for the body, especially when the food load is high in carbohydrates (see “You’re eating processed foods” above).

8. You’re recovering from smoking:

If you’re worried about free radicals at all, then smoking is your “Public Enemy No. 1.” The vapor and tar are a strong infusion of free radicals [14]. These free radicals are likely the culprits behind many of the harmful effects of smoking.

9. You’re recovering from an injury or surgery:

Swelling and inflammation go hand-in-hand with free radicals as noted here already, and so it’s no wonder that your doctor tells you to get lots of rest and eat well when recovering from an injury or surgical trauma. 

10. You’re exposed to pollution:

Walking down a busy city street

There are thousands of types of air pollutants, and they can come from anything from cooking to agriculture to cars. Many of them act as free radicals and enter the bloodstream quickly through the lungs [15]

Even some of the most developed countries will have high levels of air pollution, especially in urban areas. 

11. You have pesticides in your diet:

It’s probably nothing new to you that pesticides have long been linked to cancer and a host of other health problems [16]. People’s anger over pesticides is part of the reason that the organic foods industry is now worth over $200 billion. 

Many (if not most) pesticides contain or create free radicals to control pests [17]. Even with an abundance of organic options nowadays, pesticides may still sneak into produce

It may alarm you to discover that out of every 10 Americans, 9 test positive for pesticides in blood and/or urine tests [18]. If that wasn’t bad enough, the average American has 29 different pesticides running through their body [19]

Who needs antioxidants in their diet?

Family making healthy food

If you read between the lines from the list above, it might come as no surprise to you that everybody needs antioxidants in their diets. Since free radicals are a part of normal metabolism, you can’t expect to avoid them completely. 

And even if your lifestyle is exemplary, your body will still depend on a healthy diet to get the full profile of necessary antioxidants. 

What foods will help me get antioxidants? 

Here are the foods with the highest antioxidant content per serving, per the USDA [20]:

  1. Small red beans
  2. Wild blueberries
  3. Red kidney beans
  4. Pinto beans
  5. Blueberries (cultivated)
  6. Cranberries
  7. Artichokes
  8. Blackberries
  9. Prunes
  10. Raspberries
  11. Strawberries
  12. Red Delicious apples
  13. Granny Smith apples
  14. Pecans
  15. Sweet cherries
  16. Black plums
  17. Russet potatoes
  18. Black beans 
  19. Plums
  20. Gala apples

For many, this shortlist often turns into breakfast smoothies for the sake of ease. Blending fruits and vegetables can make digestion easier and the antioxidants more accessible [21].

What’s the easiest way to get more antioxidants?

Vitamin and mineral supplements at the grocery store or pharmacy

This might be a little trickier than you think. 

When people first find out about free radicals, it’s tempting to go and pick up an antioxidant supplement at the local supermarket to help your diet. 

But keep in mind that not all supplements with antioxidants will help you like you’d think. 

Several scientific studies have looked closely at the effects of “supplement bombs” — supplements that have 2,000%-3,000% of the daily recommended value of antioxidants like Vitamin A and Vitamin E. These are fairly common in stores, and at such large doses, they were found to increase chances of cancer [22].

It’s obvious that antioxidants are crucial, but even crucial things need to be done in moderation — just like breathing, drinking water, and eating. 

Will antioxidant smoothies work?

green smoothie blend on the table

If you’re going to use supplements to combat free radicals, you don’t need to powerwash your system with doses that are 20-30 times what a healthy person needs. 

That said, getting the variety and dosage of antioxidant foods you need can take a lot of planning and shopping — that’s why many people turn to smoothie supplements

For a convenient addition to your diet, check out our favorite wide-spectrum antioxidant smoothie supplement here. Since it has 20 sources of antioxidants, it matches the variety in the USDA’s list above… except that you won’t have to load your refrigerator with a dozen fruits and hope you can eat them all before they spoil. 

However, variety isn’t the only reason it’s our favorite — it’s that it gets all the right antioxidants without any extreme dosage. It’s balanced… just like any good diet should be. 

References

  1. How do free radicals affect the body?
  2. Mortality in Developed Countries
  3. A review of the molecular mechanisms of hyperglycemia-induced free radical generation leading to oxidative stress
  4. Consumption of Sugars, Sugary Foods, and Sugary Beverages in Relation to Adiposity-Related Cancer Risk in the Framingham Offspring Cohort (1991-2013)
  5. Healthy eating
  6. Effect of REM sleep deprivation on the antioxidant status in the brain of Wistar rats
  7. How Much Sleep Do I Need?
  8. Cancer and Sleep
  9. Irradiation of Skin with Visible Light Induces Reactive Oxygen Species and Matrix-Degrading Enzymes
  10. UV – Generated Free Radicals (FR) in Skin and Hair – Their Formation, Action, Elimination and Prevention
  11. Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress as a major cause of age-related diseases and cancer
  12. Free radicals in exhaustive physical exercise: mechanism of production, and protection by antioxidants
  13. The suppressive effect of dietary restriction and weight loss in the obese on the generation of reactive oxygen species by leukocytes, lipid peroxidation, and protein carbonylation
  14. Free-radical chemistry of cigarette smoke and its toxicological implications
  15. Air pollution: a global problem needs local fixes
  16. Synthetic Pesticides and Health in Vulnerable Populations: Agricultural Workers
  17. Pesticides and oxidative stress: a review
  18. Comparison of questionnaire-based estimation of pesticide residue intake from fruits and vegetables with urinary concentrations of pesticide biomarkers
  19. Eat the Peach, Not the Pesticide
  20. Largest USDA study of food antioxidants reveals best sources
  21. Superfoods and Greens
  22. Comparison of the Effects of Blending and Juicing on the Phytochemicals Contents and Antioxidant Capacity of Typical Korean Kernel Fruit Juices

 

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