The quick answer: There’s a billion or more fires within you—in the cellular mitochondria that produce your life-giving energy. You need the energy, but you also need to provide the antioxidants that protect against the fire’s oxidation by-products—free radicals.
We make energy at the cellular level—mitochondria, microscopic organelles within our cells—oxidize, or burn, glucose to create life-giving energy. The harder working the cell—think of heart muscle—the more mitochondria there is. One problem: oxidation also results in free radicals, which are molecules lacking an electron. If they don’t get that electron, they’re like a bull in a china shop, wrecking other molecules to steal an electron.
Nature provides a solution to the oxidation/free radical problem—antioxidants. Antioxidants supply the needed electron and some can do it cyclically, over and over. We get antioxidants from healthy foods, but the body can produce them also. The melatonin produced when we sleep in the dark is a potent antioxidant protecting you all through the night.
The world of antioxidants is remarkable complex—we know little about them but it appears there are thousands of varieties. Fruits, vegetables and grains—the basics of a natural diet—are rich in antioxidants but they provide different types. To get an adequate supply, you need to eat a variety of natural foods. It’s more than just the sum—there seems to be a synergistic effect from a variety of antioxidants.
Three of the vitamins are potent antioxidants—vitamins A, C, and E. Some minerals, like selenium, are also powerful antioxidants. The folks in the supplement business got excited about the protective powers of antioxidants and rushed a variety of products to the market. Scientists have tried to provide supporting data but, to my knowledge, factory-produced antioxidants have not proven to be as helpful as natural sources.
There was an antioxidant study in the news recently with a result that shouldn’t surprise a reader of this blog. A 14-year study of over 5000 older adults found no protection from antioxidants against stroke or dementia.
Basically, they gave people a diet questionnaire and divided them into three groups: most, average, or least dietary antioxidants. At the end of the study there was no difference found between the three groups.
Does this negate the importance of antioxidants? No! Here’s why: A closer look showed the difference in antioxidant intake between the groups to be 90% due to the antioxidants in coffee and tea. Apparently, with the exception of coffee and tea, the diet didn’t vary much among the groups and—no surprise—even though there are antioxidants in these hot drinks, there wasn’t an overall health advantage.
The tragic thing about the study is the money wasted would have been better used to study people who really do eat differently—our readers.
Sunscreen for Plants
Here’s an interesting thought about antioxidants. Plants need the sun to grow but they also must protect themselves against oxidation from the sun’s UV rays. Imagine how you would survive naked to the sun from morning ‘til night.
So the surface, or skin, of plants is rich in antioxidants. The small fruits like berries have a lot of skin for a small mass. Ditto for the leafy greens, like kale and spinach. This works also for grains, which are even smaller. So be sure to include berries, dark leafy greens, and whole grains in your diet.
Antioxidants and Cancer
Free radicals cause oxidative stress and this has been linked to a higher risk for cancer, including breast cancer. In addition to oxidative stress, one study found women with the lowest blood level of vitamin A to have twice the risk for breast cancer. Those with the lowest blood level of vitamin E had triple the risk.
That’s scary. So eating a diet of natural foods rich in antioxidants—and getting plenty of sleep—is doubly important.
The beautiful wife reminds me that posts work best if kept to 600 words. People tend to start skimming if the posts are longer—a beautiful daughter-in-law confirms this. So I must stop, with this week’s Healthy Change: