By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
You’ve likely read or heard me speak about antioxidants,…how they combat free radicals and protect the body from oxidative stress. If you’ve ever wondered what all this really means, here’s the breakdown.
What are Free Radicals?
Free radicals are cellular by-products that are formed during oxidation, the interaction between oxygen and other molecules which results in the loss of electrons. Paradoxically, oxygen, which is vital for most metabolic processes, is a primary free-radical producer. Cut open an apple to see oxidation at work… within minutes it will begin turning brown.
While our bodies naturally produce free radicals during everyday metabolism, for example during breathing, digestion or exercising, we also generate them through inflammatory responses. Inflammation may occur when our bodies fight off infections, as well as through exposure to toxins like cigarette smoke and other environmental pollutants. Additionally, we subject ourselves to inflammation when we consume trans-fatty acids and too much sugar. Although our bodies are designed to deal with free radicals, when there’s too many of them inside us, free radicals can literally trash our bodies.
How Free Radicals Damage Cells
Having unpaired electrons, free radical oxygen molecules are highly charged and unstable. Seeking balance, free radicals pair with healthy molecules to steal electrons. The healthy molecules, in turn, become free radicals, setting off a chain of destruction within our bodies, primarily to cell membranes.
According to the free radical theory of aging, asserted by Denham Harnam, M.D. in 1956, excess oxidative, or free radical stress, causes degenerative aging. In stealing electrons from other cells, free radicals can disrupt DNA replication, among other chemical processes, and provoke inflammation that injures cell membranes, especially within blood vessel walls. When cell membranes become damaged, cells cannot expel waste products or receive vital nutrients and oxygen, and ultimately succumb to sickness and death.
What Do Antioxidants Do?
Fortunately, our bodies have natural defense mechanisms against free radicals. We have elaborate enzyme systems that catalyze chemical reactions with antioxidant effects. Superoxide dismutase (SOD), for example, an enzyme the body produces in limited amounts, renders free radicals harmless by providing extra electrons. When the number of free radicals exceeds the amount of SOD, however, the body must rely on antioxidants directly or indirectly obtained through our diets or supplementation to stave off free radical damage. Like SOD, antioxidants donate electrons to neutralize free radicals.
Antioxidants protect cellular membranes and genetic DNA, as well as enzyme systems which participate in cellular metabolism. High levels of antioxidants in the blood can protect against heart disease, stroke, and even cancer. The integrity of every cell in the body depends on the balance of free radicals and antioxidants, or, in other words, effective damage control. In this age of unprecedented environmental toxicity, we need all the antioxidant support we can get.
Which Antioxidants are Best For Health?
Vitamins C and E, together are some of the most powerful antioxidants we can ingest, as well as zinc, alpha lipoic acid, selenium, and coenzyme Q10. Antioxidants that are vitamins must be obtained through the diet, while others like coenzyme Q10 and glutathione are synthesized within the body. However, the endogenous production of coenzyme Q10 slows down considerably with aging. Some of the antioxidant compounds derived from the diet include polyphenols, such as reservatrol and flavonoids like quercetin, and carotenoids, like lycopene, lutein, and beta carotene.
Depending on whether antioxidants are water or fat soluble, or both, they may work synergistically to increase overall efficacy. Alpha lipoic acid, for example, is both fat and water soluble, which means that it can cross through lipids in cell membranes as well as through water-rich blood. Taking alpha lipoic acid with water-soluble Vitamin C can help transport Vitamin C through cell membranes, and thus increase its efficacy; the same applies with fat-soluble Vitamin E.
The Top 10 Antioxidant Foods (see also Dr. Sinatra’s Top Healing Foods)
- Berries (blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and cherries)
- Red grapes
- Red cabbage and artichokes
- Carrots, pumpkins, winter squash, and sweet potatoes
- Citrus fruits
- Green tea
Foods vs. Supplements
Current research demonstrates that eating a variety of antioxidant-rich whole foods is more beneficial to health than supplementation alone, perhaps because of the unique synergism of nutrients, as well as fiber content within, food. However, many of us, for whatever reason, are unable to obtain from food all the nutrients we need. Perhaps we don’t have time to shop for and prepare nutritious foods at home, or maybe we are simply slaves to convenience and rely on processed foods and other fast foods to get us through the day. We’re in double trouble if our diets are high in sugar, trans-fats, and other inflammatory foods, and need antioxidants to counteract damage as well as deficiency. Supplementing with a good multivitamin complex can provide us the antioxidants we need, as well as the building blocks to synthesize other crucial antioxidants within our bodies.
At the very least, take the most effective antioxidant and best membrane stabilizer in nature, coenzyme Q10. Minimum dosage recommendations are 60 to 100 mg per day for healthy individuals, and up to 200 mg or more per day for persons with health-compromising illnesses or those taking statin drugs.
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