Antioxidants work by protecting your cells from damaging molecules called free radicals, which are produced in the body as a natural by-product of metabolism. Just as metal rusts and a slice of apple browns in the presence of oxygen, free radical damage triggers changes in the structure of otherwise healthy cells; they are an underlying cause of many chronic diseases and aging.
Since the creation of free radicals is a natural process occurring continuously in the body, a steady supply of antioxidants are required to neutralize free radical damage. While the body is capable of producing some of its own antioxidants, it requires an additional supply that can only be obtained from food and/or dietary supplements. Maintaining a high antioxidant level becomes even more critical as we get older because the body’s ability to manufacture its own antioxidants declines with age.
Antioxidants are naturally found in large amounts in plants. The origin of all plant life is the sea. When species of marine plants began adapting to life on land, they also began to produce non-marine antioxidants such as ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), polyphenols and tocopherols. In order to further protect themselves from their own need to utilize the oxygen in the air around them, plants became pigmented. Pigmentation acts as a chemical defense against the free radical damage resulting from photosynthesis.
What about antioxidants in food? …
You will frequently see charts that take a reductionist approach to classifying foods based on their level of certain antioxidants. For example:
Vitamin A—Dark green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, turnip greens. Carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, cantaloupe, apricots, liver, eggs and dairy products
Vitamin C—Citrus fruits and their juices, guava, kiwifruit, papaya, berries especially strawberries, mangoes, pineapple, red peppers, parsley, broccoli, cauliflower, watercress, tomatoes and liver.
Vitamin E—Wheat germ, sea buckthorn, nuts, seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, kiwifruit, vegetable and fish-liver oils.
Unfortunately, this isolated approach can reinforce too narrow a view of the way antioxidants really work; it’s an approach that overlooks the power and importance of the tens of thousands of pigment antioxidants plants have developed over the millennia.
Below is just a small sampling of the known phytonutrient categories that exist in plants:
Carotenoids are a large group—several hundred or even thousands—of fat-soluble pigments widely distributed in plants and animals. Dietary carotenoids are thought to provide health benefits by decreasing the risk of disease (particularly certain cancers), stroke, heart disease, and eye disorders. Carotenoids are also thought to enhance the immune system. The carotenoids that have been most studied in this regard are beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin and astaxanthin.
Chlorophyll is a green pigment found in almost all plants, algae, and cyanobacteria. Chlorophyll has the power to regenerate our bodies at the molecular and cellular level and is known to help cleanse the body, fight infection, help heal wounds, and promote the health of the circulatory, digestive, immune, and detoxification systems. Chlorophyll consumption increases the number of red blood cells and, therefore, heightens the body’s ability to use oxygen. Chlorophyll also reduces the binding of carcinogens to DNA in the liver and other organs.
Flavonoids, also called bioflavonoids, are a group of naturally occurring compounds which are widely distributed in nature and are ubiquitous in vegetables, berries, fruits and cacao (the bean used to make chocolate). They comprise the most common subset of plant polyphenols and provide much of the flavor and color to fruits and vegetables. More than 6000 different flavonoids have been identified. Citrus flavonoids are found in citrus fruits such as lemons, oranges, tangerines and grapefruit. A diet rich in citrus flavonoids has been associated with a reduced risk of death due to coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease.
Catechins or flavanols are a subclass of flavonoids found in onions, apples, berries, red wine, broccoli, tea, grape seed, coffee and cocoa beans. Clinical studies have shown that the consumption of certain flavanol-rich foods such as cocoa, tea and red wine can result in improved cardiovascular function. Epidemiological studies suggest that a high dietary intake of flavanols contributes to a reduced risk of vascular disease.
Anthocyanins, anthocyanidins, proanthocyanidins and procyanidins are a large water-soluble pigment group found in a large number of fruits, vegetables and flowers—particularly grapes, grape seeds, red wine, pomegranate, apples and berries. All of these have pronounced antioxidant benefits and pronounced effects on the vascular system. Apples contain many different kinds of polyphenols with powerful benefits. For example, applephenon is an apple polyphenol extract produced commercially from unripe apples; it has been used as a natural additive to prevent oxidation in food.
There are literally thousands more of these powerful phytonutrients! In addition, there are also countless herbs and spices that have powerful antioxidant properties—holy basil, ginger, pine bark extract, reishi mushroom, thyme, basil and turmeric, just to name a few.
The take home point?
Antioxidant protection is a team effort. Therefore, taking an isolated antioxidant or two will not provide adequate free radical protection. In order to be protected, we need to consume the tens of thousands of plant-based antioxidants that our bodies have evolved to use. Taking a synthetic—or even a natural—vitamin C, E or beta carotene by itself will simply not be effective in fighting free radical damage. The only real way to pump up your antioxidant protection is by dramatically increasing your intake of organic, colorful, whole foods.
And numerous studies have shown that when it comes to keeping pace with our life-long free radical battle, almost everyone needs the additional protection that can be found in the right antioxidant supplement formula—one created from whole food concentrates that include ALL the phytonutrients your body needs.
Build a foundation of nutritional support. Make sure you are getting a board based foundational support of that includes nature’s most potent antioxidant product, a food-based whole food formula (made exclusively from raw, organic fruit and vegetable concentrates), a super-premium omega 3 fatty acid supplement, highly-effective form of vitamin D and K2 along with nitric oxide support to energize and optimize your health and performance.