No doubt you’ve heard of the word antioxidants, it’s become a bit of a buzzword in the wellness industry in recent years. Just about every article you come across mentions them (and for good reason, they’re great!) - but what are they, exactly? And why is the wellness industry going crazy about them? In this article, I’ll be taking a closer look at antioxidants, exploring what they are, what they do in the body and why they are so useful in the fight against systemic inflammation.
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are molecules that help stabilise molecules called ‘free radicals’. Free radicals are another type of molecule, which are continuously formed in the body through normal processes (for example, our immune system produces free radicals when fighting off infections); however, free radical molecules are unstable and if left alone, will cause damage to nearby cells (1). Antioxidants are produced in our body to some degree, but they are also found in certain foods. Vitamins A, C and E work as antioxidants in the body, as do some minerals such as zinc and selenium, and specific phytonutrients found in plant foods (2).
How do they support inflammation?
Antioxidants work by ‘lending’ an electron to a free radical, stabilising the molecule and reducing the damage it can cause to nearby healthy cells (1). If left, free radical damage can result in oxidative stress, which can increase levels of inflammation. Oxidative stress, much like inflammation, has been linked to the development of several diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer (3). Free radicals are also produced as a result of environmental factors, including air pollution, cigarette smoke, high consumption of sugar and trans fat, excessive exercise and exposure to certain chemicals (4). As such, we can never completely rid ourselves of free radicals; instead, it is critical to have a good level of antioxidants in the diet to stabilise them and keep things in balance.
Where can I find antioxidants?
Plant foods! As many plant foods are great sources of vitamins A, C and E, and phytonutrients, they naturally contain higher levels of antioxidants. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and wholegrains all count. Some foods, such as berries, mango, green tea and cocoa, contain particularly high amounts due to their high phytonutrient content, so be sure to include plenty in your diet. Animal foods such as liver and fish are also incredible sources of antioxidants, so they are great to eat regularly too. Finally, the balance of free radicals to antioxidants is incredibly important, so reducing free radical production is just as crucial as increasing your antioxidant intake; as such, try to limit those environmental factors you have control over, such as smoking, consumption of trans fats and sugar and over-exercising.
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