Thursday
Feb212013

Antioxidants

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.  

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Antioxidants

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.

Phony 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:

 

 

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Reader Comments (6)

I just got an e-mail from someone peddling choffy - a hot drink brewed from cacao beans. The main benefit seems to be the level of antioxidants it delivers. I thought I'd get your take on this. Have you heard of it and what is your opinion on the effectiveness and safety of this drink?

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessBK

I don't know if you have seen this recipe but we love it. I am still trying to convince our kids that it is delicious toasted. You can make it grain free by swapping out the oats for almond flour and coconut. I am going to add some dried fruit next time.
http://mynewroots.org/site/2013/02/the-life-changing-loaf-of-bread/
Needless to say, it has lots of fiber!

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterchristine

Hi Jess
I've never tried Choffy—presented as a roasted cocoa alternative to coffee. It's a new processed food product offered as a morning stimulant (theobromine instead of caffeine). It's likely not any worse for you than coffee or an energy drink, but one can't be sure as it hasn't been studied. The vendors don't offer any detail about how it's processed, a reason to be cautious, nor are there any studies out yet confirming any actual health benefit.
They claim it has more antioxidants (by the ORAC test) than blueberries which infers it's more healthy than blueberries and that seems a crazy claim. Multilevel marketing featuring new forms of highly processed plants is not the same as eating real food and much more expensive. I'd avoid it but there's no evidence it will kill you to drink a little—or make you any healthier. Best to you.

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

I don't get why anyone would want to bother with antioxidant supplements if they could eat food that looks like your opening picture! I am counting the days until my garden starts producing strawberries, blueberries and blackberries!

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMindy

I wouldn't drink those cacao drinks because cocoa contains lots of phytates, which bind to minerals like magnesium and calcium, making them unavailable.

I read an interesting article about vitamin A by Sally Fallon. She says that the vitamin A (beta carotene) in plants first has to be converted by the gut before it can be used, and people without healthy gut flora may not be able to make that conversion. She claims it's important to get actual vitamin A from butter, lard, liver, cod liver oil and other natural sources.

February 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Berries . . . yum. Did a little study of sloe berries last week. The tartness helps kill some food poisons? Like the vinegar in pickles that you eat at a picnic to avoid getting sick from warm chicken or potato salad? I hope it's true. I like a little tartness in fruit. Was surprised recently though at the tartness of kiwi fruit - how it made my mouth feel like I'd been eating fresh pineapple. It's all good don't you think?

February 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

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