antioxidantsAntioxidants seem to be all the craze these days. They constantly show up on magazine covers that promise lists of foods to eat for more antioxidants. Health drink manufacturers make sure every label has some reference to the amount of antioxidants in their product as well. The supplement industry turns over more profit every year from advertising antioxidants.

But what are antioxidants and why are they so good for you?

Put simply, antioxidants are molecules that inhibit the oxidation of other molecules. In terms of your health and what it means for our body, antioxidants protect your cells from the damage caused by exposure to things like smoking, alcohol, pollution, radiation, other various chemicals and even normal metabolism. Oxidation is a perfectly normal process within the body, of course. But the aforementioned factors can accelerate the effects of free radicals, which have the potential to harm your cells.

Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms that have an odd number of electrons. They can form when oxygen and certain molecules interact (hence, “oxidation”). Their odd number makes them seek another electron to bond with, which can set off a chain of potentially harmful reactions. In the body, the most dangerous potential reaction would be with either DNA or the cell membrane, causing them to function poorly and/or die. Foods can also contain free radicals, as can the air you breathe.

Luckily, the body is adept at handling oxidative stress. In fact, some studies have shown it’s good for the body to deal with them. When necessary, the body can create an array of antioxidants to combat free radicals and prevent oxidation from damaging cells. Furthermore, the body produces enzymes that patrol the body, destroying free radicals they find.

But how do antioxidants actually stop free radicals? One of two ways. First, they can stop the chain reaction in its tracks. When a free radical gives up or steals an electron, another free radical is formed. That free radical, in turn, does the same thing and the chain continues on until it either decays or an antioxidant steps in and stabilized the antioxidant, causing its chain-breaking to cease. The second way is by stopping it before it starts. Antioxidants can actually reduce the rate at which these chain reactions begin.

Of course, there can always be too much of a good thing. When the amount of free radicals goes beyond what the body can handle, oxidative stress occurs. This can be the beginning of cancer and heart disease as well as Alzheimer’s, cataracts, arthritis, diabetes, blindness due to old age and kidney disease.

Antioxidants actually became popular in the early nineties. This is when scientists started to do studies that seemed to show people with diets low in antioxidant rich foods (mainly fruits and vegetables) had a greater risk of contracting serious health conditions. This encouraged several experiments in which different antioxidant supplements were tested for their ability to protect against heart disease, cancer and other diseases.

From then on, antioxidants have been a popular point of discussion on health forums, in health magazines and on the nightly news. Seemingly every product possible added the word to their labels overnight.

The potential health benefits of antioxidants are potentially numerous and widespread.

Due to its high metabolic rate, the brain is susceptible to the harms of oxidation. As such, antioxidants are often prescribed in the service of treating various brain injuries. Research continues into the possible benefits of using antioxidants to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

They may also help fight or prevent inflammation, cancer, macular degeneration, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases, diabetes and even the physical signs of aging.

Understandably, with all the hype surrounding antioxidants, there has been no shortage in health supplements touting their benefits. But more and more scientists are beginning to agree that the best source for antioxidants come from actual whole foods. In fact, some are even suggesting supplements may cause more harm than good.

In May, 2012, a study by the University of California found no evidence that antioxidant supplements prevented cancer in otherwise healthy people. Just the opposite, they said. Researchers found evidence from numerous studies that suggested large amounts of antioxidant supplementation could actually promote cancer!

That study was far from alone. Scientists conducted a study in 2011 that found vitamin E supplements increased the chances of prostate cancer by seventeen percent. In 2010, scientists concluded that taking antioxidants could increase your risk of bladder cancer by fifty percent.

While antioxidants are still necessary, a growing body of proponents is advocating people get them through eating normal, whole foods. In fact, many of the original studies that brought antioxidants to the forefront didn’t involve supplements at all. They simply surveyed people who either already did or didn’t get a healthy dose of antioxidants from their diets (generally through fruits and vegetables or a lack thereof).

So if you’re looking to increase the antioxidants in your body, fruits and vegetables are probably the best place to start.

A good rule of thumb is the darker the fruit or vegetable, the higher the level of antioxidants. Common antioxidants include: beta-carotene and other carotenoids, vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc and selenium.

Beta-carotene and carotenoids can be found in apricots, asparaguys, broccoli, carrots, kale, spinach, watermelon and tomatoes. Vitamin C can be found in broccoli, cauliflower, grapefruits, oranges, strawberries and tomatoes. Vitamin E can be found in broccoli, chard, turnip greens, red peppers and spinach.

Zinc comes mostly from animal products like red meat, poultry and oysters, but can also be found in whole grains, beans and nuts. Selenium is found in Brazil nuts, tuna, beef, poultry and fortified breads.

In the end, the best diet is probably the most complete. You should strive to eat enough real, whole foods that supplementation isn’t necessary. In the case of antioxidants, which are clearly important to your health, there are no lack of delicious foods to choose from.

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