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What Are Antioxidants and How Can They Benefit You?

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David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

Berries are packed with antioxidants

Berries are packed with antioxidants

The Benefits Of Antioxidants

You’ll have undoubtedly heard about antioxidants and all the remarkable health benefits they are said to provide. Most fruits and vegetables are full of them, and if you eat enough of them, they are supposed to help ward off cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and many other degenerative diseases, as well as slow the signs of ageing and help you live longer.

But what exactly are antioxidants? How do they work? And what health benefits can you really expect to experience from consuming them on a regular basis? In this article I’ll answer those questions.

What Are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are substances that neutralize the "free radicals" that are constantly attacking and damaging our bodies. Free radicals are unstable, highly reactive molecules that tear through the cells of your body causing damage to your tissues, joints, organs, and even your DNA. Over time this can lead to all manner of health problems, as well as accelerating the ageing process.

Free radicals are produced as a by-product of normal respiration, and at low levels they are actually beneficial. But at higher levels they are very destructive. Excess free radicals are produced by pollution, chemicals (in the home or the environment), cigarette smoke, radiation (ultraviolet, x-rays etc.), stress and many other factors.

The world we live in today produces a tremendous free radical barrage, and this constant attack can be a major cause of a wide range of degenerative diseases such as arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, central nervous system disorders and even cancer. So it’s important to eat a diet that’s high in antioxidants to help combat this constant threat.

How Do Antioxidants Work?

The reason that free radicals are so unstable and destructive is because they have an electron missing. Electrons (like humans) like to exist in pairs, so if an atom loses an electron it will seek to get one back – by stealing one from a neighboring atom. This of course means that this neighboring atom now has an electron missing, so it becomes a free radical and sets out to steal another one from somewhere else. And so the process continues in a chain reaction of free radical creation and damage.

Antioxidants stop this process by donating one of their own electrons to the free radical, thereby stabilizing it. However, antioxidants can do this without becoming free radicals themselves. So they stop the ongoing damage and allow healing to take place.

Diagram of a free radical showing the missing electron.

Diagram of a free radical showing the missing electron.

Where Do Antioxidants Come From?

We produce some antioxidants (e.g. glutathione peroxidase and superoxide dismutase) in our bodies naturally. But our ability to do this declines with age as our metabolic systems become less efficient.

Other antioxidants are obtained from our diet, and foods such as fruits and vegetables, red wine, cocoa and green tea contain them in significant amounts. However, because our modern environment produces such a tremendous free radical barrage, as well as the fact that a lot of the food we eat today is nutritionally deficient, it can be difficult to get enough of them from our diet.

Because of this it could be worth considering taking a good quality, broad spectrum antioxidant supplement in order to provide additional protection. This is particularly recommended if you don’t eat a lot of fruits and vegetables or if you smoke, spend a lot of time in the sun or eat a lot of fried food.

Certain vitamins and minerals act as antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene and the minerals selenium, zinc and copper. But there are hundreds of other substances that have a much higher antioxidant capacity than these, and may therefore confer even greater benefits. Some of these include alpha lipoic acid, quercetin, co-enzyme Q10, proanthocyanidins (from the seeds and skins of grapes), flavanols and curcumin.

The Health Benefits of Antioxidants

So, by ensuring you get an adequate and varied supply of antioxidants in your diet each day there are a great many health benefits you can expect to experience. Some of these include:

  • Improved heart and circulatory health
  • Better skin tone and quality
  • Improved joint mobility
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Faster recovery from injuries or training
  • Reduction of allergies and asthma
  • Improved immune system function
  • Enhanced cognitive processes
  • Reduced risk of cancer
  • More energy and vitality – and much more

The potency of an antioxidant is measured using the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) scale. This is basically a measure of how well the antioxidant does its job of neutralizing free radicals. However, equally as important as the potency is the variety of antioxidants you consume. This is because there are a number of different types of free radicals, and different antioxidants are effective against different free radical types.

If you are looking for an antioxidant supplement you will find many so-called "super antioxidants" and "magic juices" on the market that promise near miraculous health benefits based mostly on their antioxidant properties. But many of these only provide an ORAC value in the range of 500 – 2000 units per day, and sometimes they only contain one or two ingredients.

However, to get the full benefits, you should be looking for a supplement that supplies around 3000 – 6000 ORAC units per day and contains a wide variety of antioxidant ingredients

It’s also important, as with multivitamin supplements, that the ingredients are obtained from natural, whole food sources, as synthetic ingredients tend to be less effective and can sometimes do more harm than good, particularly when taken over the long term, or in high dosages.

So, now you know what antioxidants are, what they do and how they can benefit you. And you also know what to look for in a good antioxidant supplement. I hope that was helpful, but if you have any questions just ask them in the comments below.


Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health

Are Antioxidants the Road to the Fountain of Youth?

The 6-a-day study: effects of fruit and vegetables on markers of oxidative stress and antioxidative defense in healthy nonsmokers

Flavonoid intake and risk of CVD: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies

Antioxidants and Cognitive Function

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


David (author) from Birmingham, UK on June 30, 2014:

Yes you are right, you do need to be cautious when selection supplements.

Ken Williams on June 19, 2014:

Valuable advice in this article, always read your labels and know what your taking. So many supplements out there make bold claims with inferior ingredients.