You’ve heard about free radicals and antioxidants, but do you know how they actually affect your body? From superfoods to supplements, getting plenty of antioxidants is the key to fighting off aging, disease and other illnesses.
If you’re unclear on how free radicals and antioxidants interact, you’re not alone. Even scientists aren’t quite sure what roles they play in disease, aging and other bodily functions. Read on to learn what we do know.
Introducing free radicals
It’s time to go back to your high school chemistry classes. To understand free radicals, think about the structure of an atom. Every atom has a layer of electrons called shells. Each shell has a pre-determined number of electrons it can hold before it is full and stable. When one atom lacks the full number of atoms, it can bond with another atom and use its electrons to fill in the gaps. This is a free radical.
Because free radicals are unstable, they react very quickly to bond with other atoms. For instance, unstable oxygen molecules look for atoms or other molecules to bond with. The more it happens, the more your body undergoes oxidative stress—a process that leads to aging and disease.
Free radicals break down cells over time. Your body loses the ability to fight oxidative stress over time, which can cause cells to degenerate faster. Oxidative stress leads to:
- Autoimmune and inflammatory disorders, including cancer and rheumatoid arthritis
- Cataracts and other age-related vision loss
- Central nervous system diseases
- Clogged arteries and cardiovascular disease
- Genetic degenerative diseases, including Huntington’s or Parkinson’s
- Visible aging, including gray hair, hair loss, wrinkles and sagging skin
Free radical exposure
If you knew where free radicals came from, you’d avoid them—after all, who wants to look older before their time, or suffer from devastating health conditions? Unfortunately, they’re not so easy to avoid.
Free radical exposure can come from a number of sources. These include alcohol, smoking, fried foods and exposure to toxic chemicals or pollution.
While you can put down the fried Oreos, cigarettes and booze easily enough, it’s hard to escape pollution and chemical exposure. Few people want to give up their vices, either—so it’s important to find a balance between healthy habits and enjoying life. That’s where antioxidants come in.
Enter antioxidants, your free-radical-fighting superheroes
Antioxidants lessen or prevent the effects of free radicals. Like vitamins and minerals, there’s no single type of antioxidant that can fight all types of free radicals. They work by “donating” an electron to unstable free radicals, without becoming unstable themselves. This reduces the free radicals’ instability and lessens the likelihood of oxidative stress.
Because antioxidants can fight off disease and aging in this manner, make sure that you get plenty of them in your diet. Consuming different varieties of antioxidants on a regular basis ensures that your body can consistently fight off different types of free radicals.
There are healthy sources of antioxidants for just about every diet and food preference. Even chocolate contains antioxidants, so go ahead, dip that fruit in dark chocolate—you don’t have to give up everything you love to be healthy.
Because antioxidants are so often found in fruits and vegetables, you can increase your intake by focusing on cooking with whole foods. And because antioxidants can plummet when you’re under stress, it’s especially important to get plenty of them when you’re sick or stressed. (Yes, that’s about the last time anyone wants to focus on making fresh healthy food for themselves.)
To reduce oxidative stress, go easy on the alcohol, quit smoking and limit your fried food intake whenever possible. It’s also helpful to avoid red meat and processed meats—the iron content in red meat and preservatives in processed meats make them more prone to oxidation. Avoid reusing your cooking oil or fats. The cooking process oxidizes them, which allows them to seep into whatever you’re cooking.
Creating balance through diet and environment
Free radical exposure is a fact of life, but limiting your exposure will help keep you healthier. Maintain the balance by making sure you have some type of antioxidant with each meal, whether that’s a salad full of dark leafy greens or a beta-carotene-loaded sweet potato with your roast chicken.
While scientists are learning more about antioxidants, one thing is certain: they are instrumental in preventing aging and disease. Make sure you’re getting your daily dose, so you can look and feel great long into your golden years.