The terms “free radical” and “antioxidant” are probably familiar to us all, as is the concept of antioxidants protecting us from free radical damage. But what is meant by “free radical” and why do we need anti-oxidation when oxygen is, after all, a non-negotiable component of human life?
Oxygen functions at all levels of human existence, from our first inhaled breath to our last. Oxygen, entering through our lungs, reacts with the nutrients we take in as food to generate the energy required to run almost every aspect of our cellular machinery. As a direct result of this and other oxygen-driven metabolic processes, in much the same way that metals rust, oxidation occurs within our tissues, setting off chain reactions of unstable molecules, known as free radicals.
Cut an apple in half and the exposed fruit will turn brown. That brown color is due to free radical damage from oxidation that will eventually ruin the fruit. This process in the human body can damage DNA and cell membranes, alter our biochemicals, and kill cells outright. It is now widely accepted that oxidative damage accelerates the aging process and can eventually lead to many different diseases, depending on the types of tissues affected.
The damage caused by free radicals is associated with at least 50 chronic diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, cancer, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease), kidney disease, and pancreatitis. While mainly the by-products of normal metabolism, free radicals are also generated as a result of external assaults (stress, refined foods, smoking, drugs, etc.), which increase the likelihood of chronic oxidative damage.
As with so much in life, the word “balance” is key. A healthy human body is able to fight free radical damage by producing its own antioxidant molecules and enzymes to maintain oxygen homeostasis (balance). But these are produced in relatively small amounts, and to maintain that balance, our bodies require a constant supply of nutrient-rich foods to slow down the oxidative process and to help repair damaged cells.
Antioxidant is the term used for molecules that prevent oxidation reactions in our bodies. They not only protect our cells from free radical destruction but also have the ability to repair cells that have already sustained stress and/or damage. Molecules with antioxidant properties include enzymes, vitamins and minerals, and phytonutrients. Some of these nutrients act by direct antioxidant action, some enhance production of our endogenously produced antioxidants, some have direct cell-signaling abilities, and all are considered potent anti-inflammatories. Because inflammation is now understood to be the basis upon which many degenerative conditions develop, these nutrients are a first line of defense to help us promote not only longevity but a better quality of life.
Plants, as they photosynthesize sunlight into sugars, undergo tremendous oxidative stress of their own and require plentiful and numerous substances to protect themselves. The substances that plants make to protect their own tissues are precisely what protects the human body from excessive oxidative stress. The plants with the greatest antioxidant and anti-inflammatory clout are the ones with the deepest colors: greens, blues, purples, reds, oranges, and yellows.
Though not the exclusive sources of antioxidants plants are always the original sources because it is through eating plants that animals derive the nutrients they contain. Colorful food plants and sustainably raised animals are so rich in these necessary nutrients that they are truly the go-to foods for the antioxidants required in the most abundance—vitamins A, C, E, and the minerals selenium and zinc (ACESZ).
Let’s take a look at what these antioxidant superstars have to offer:
Available in both plants and animals. Plants contain the precursors to vitamin A in the form of carotenes, such as beta-carotene, which can be converted to vitamin A in healthy bodies. Animal sources contain pre-formed vitamin A, called retinol. Vitamin A and carotenes:
- Hamper malignant transformation and undo premalignant changes in tissue
- Are anti-infective and help build immune resistance
- Counteract night blindness, weak eyesight, and strengthen the optical system
- Help develop strong bone cells
- Are a major factor in skin, hair, teeth, and gum health
- Are critical to adrenal and steroid hormone synthesis
- Protect from premature aging
- One of the most useful antioxidants in blood plasma
- Protects against cancer, viral and bacterial infections, heart disease, arthritis, allergies, radiation poisoning, metal toxicity, environmental pollutants, and early aging
- Promotes wound healing after surgery, increases resistance to infections, and is essential to formation of new collagen tissue
- Is key in treating high blood pressure, male infertility, and in suppressing the HIV virus
- Helps adrenal and iron insufficiency, especially when the body is under stress
- Relieves withdrawal symptoms from drugs, tranquilizers, and alcohol
- Helps reduce elevated LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- May significantly lower serum lead levels
- In combination with vitamin E and carotenoids, can lower risk of developing cataracts
- Improves blood sugar levels in non-insulin dependent diabetics
- Has also been proven clinically to decrease length and severity of colds
- Aspirin, oral contraceptives, and smoking deplete vitamin C levels
- Deficiency results in easy bruising, receding gums, slow healing, fatigue, and rough skin
- Immune stimulating vitamin
- An effective anticoagulant and vasodilator against blood clots and heart disease
- Slows aging of the cells and the brain
- Eases fatigue
- Provides oxygen to the tissues for accelerated healing of burns and wounds
- Works with selenium to neutralize free radicals to fight cancer
- Helpful for chronic conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, strokes, fibrocystic breast disease, Lupus, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and viral infections
- Improves skin tone and texture
- Useful in controlling dandruff and alopecia
- Deficiency contributes to acne, anemia, some cancers, gallstones, Lou Gehrig’s disease, nerve and muscle degeneration, and Alzheimer’s disease
- Vitamin E supplementation works best in conjunction with vitamin C and selenium
Selenium is a component of the powerful antioxidant glutathione and a strong antioxidant itself.
- Protects against free radical damage and toxic metal toxicity
- Offers anticancer and immune stimulating properties
- Works with vitamin E to protect against cholesterol accumulation
- Essential for proper thyroid function
- Protects from heart weakness and degenerative diseases
- Enhances skin elasticity
- Deficiency contributes to aging skin, asthma and other inflammatory diseases, cataract formation, liver damage, hypothyroidism, and even colon cancer.
- Found in more than two hundred enzymes in our bodies.
- A brain food that helps control mental disorders and promotes mental alertness
- Cofactor mineral of the enzyme Superoxide Dismutase (SOD), known to fight free radical damage
- Essential to the formation of insulin, which regulates blood sugar
- Builds immune strength
- Is key to glandular, sexual, and reproductive health
- Helps prevent birth defects, enhances sensory perception, and accelerates healing
- Those who get little sleep, work long hours or more than one job, or those recovering from injury should increase their zinc levels
- Zinc picolinate is highly absorbable
- Supplementation with zinc can reverse defects in immune function related to aging; this nutrient is key for the elderly
- A high-stress lifestyle will deplete zinc stores, impairing immune response and the ability to heal
- Deficiency results in susceptibility to infection, decreased sense of smell and taste, low sperm counts, prostate enlargement, and skin disorders
Protective plant compounds are numerous and come in many different forms. Of these, the most research has been done on antioxidants, which stand out as true superstars. Foods are never simply an assortment of separate nutrients; they are instead intricate mixtures of interacting substances. Whole plant foods, herbs and spices, pasture-raised animals, and concentrated Booster Foods are the proven means of supplying well-rounded support to our own internal antioxidant production to meet the needs of increased levels of oxidative stress caused by fast-paced lifestyles and environmental challenges.
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