Antioxidants: The Word Heard Round the World
Ah, the good ole’ antioxidants. The word that companies put on nutrition products and supplements to charge an extra $10. But let’s be honest, most people don’t know what they are or how they work.
Here at Your Personal Trainer, one of our major missions is to help our clients gain knowledge in the field of health and science so that they can make their own informed decisions. We believe that awareness itself can be curative. So, if you want any foundational knowledge in health and nutrition, understanding how antioxidants really work is crucial. We’re going to see why understanding these little guys, and how they work and interact with other molecules, can be tricky but well worth it. Antioxidants, as far as science has found, are the key to controlling how quickly or slowly we age.
What are antioxidants?
There are 1000's, maybe tens of 1000's of antioxidants that each work in their own unique ways while relying on each other for synergistic functions. There are 3 main types of antioxidants: phytonutrients, vitamins, and enzymes. When most people talk about antioxidants, they usually refer to antioxidants either coming from foods, specifically plants, or supplements (stay tuned for more info on these). What most people don’t know is that our own bodies produce the vast majority of the antioxidants we use, mostly through the production of enzymes that produce antioxidants. Antioxidants have the all-important job of stabilizing free-radicals. So, the question is…
What are free-radicals?
Free-radicals are simply molecules with an unpaired electron. Doesn’t sound too scary, but one unpaired electron turns these helpful molecules into monsters. The unpaired electron will cause the molecule to become unstable and bounce around the cell causing severe damage. The damage occurs because the unpaired electron will try to attach to paired electrons in the molecules that make up our cells, but this only leads to the molecules it touches becoming broken apart, causing functional paired molecules to become free-radicals themselves. This leads to a chain reaction that can cause severe damage to cells if the body can’t control the quantity of free-radicals. Free-radical production occurs naturally through metabolism and aging, but can be caused by environmental factors like pollution, radiation, herbicides, and more. Lifestyle factors that cause increased free-radical production include inhaling cigarettes, stress, lack of regular exercise, lack of sleep, and others. The antioxidant’s job is to give away electrons to free-radicals, making them stable molecules again. As you get older, your body naturally produces less enzymes, whose job is to produce antioxidants that get rid of free-radicals.
I found it difficult wrapping my head around what exactly is going on here while reading about it, so here’s a video that may help you visual learners. (1.)
What are the main problems with testing antioxidants?
So far antioxidants seem simple. Free-radicals= villains, antioxidants= heroes. But how do we know what to be eating to boost our antioxidant levels? This is where we run into a problem. First, the understanding of the role of antioxidants in our body is only about 20 years old, so it’s a relatively new discovery. One of the main problems with understanding antioxidants is that most tests on antioxidants are done in test tubes to measure the quantity of antioxidants, also known as its ORAC value. The problem with the ORAC test is that measuring the quantity of antioxidants doesn’t measure the quality of the antioxidants, or, how the antioxidants interact with our body. There are 1000's of different antioxidants, if not more, with their own unique mechanisms for interacting with the body. The more reliable way of measuring antioxidants is seeing how they interact with human cells. Here, we have the problem of viewing the cells themselves. When viewing the antioxidants inside our cells, scientists must take a human cell and put it in a petri dish to observe it because it’s not yet possible to observe a human cell as it sits inside the body. You would need to cut open the skin, but doing so damages the cells you are looking at, so placing the cells in the petri dish isn’t perfect but it’s the most reliable view we currently have. A petri dish doesn’t account for all of the body’s digestive and endocrine systems that may interact with the antioxidants and change their structure and function before getting to the cell. Also, because it is such a tedious process looking at molecule interactions in cells and how they synergistically affect each type of molecule, most scientists only look at one antioxidant at a time and not the culmination of antioxidants working together.
Long story short: our current way of studying antioxidants isn’t perfect. The thankful news is: there is research into total antioxidant consumption and its effect on our health.
Enzymatic antioxidants vs non-enzymatic antioxidants
There are 2 main ways that our body receives antioxidants: enzymatic antioxidants and non-enzymatic antioxidants. Your body has an ingenious way of constructing enzymes that produce antioxidants, naturally controlling the amount of free-radicals in the body, known as enzymatic antioxidants. The number of enzymes we produce and how effective they are at producing antioxidants is dependent on many factors, mainly our exercise and diet. Non-enzymatic antioxidants come from our diet, and the foods highest in antioxidants (by FAR) are plant foods.
What is the difference between supplementation of antioxidants and eating them in foods?
In the early 1980's, researchers found that smokers who had higher levels of beta-carotene (now understood to be a powerful antioxidant) in their diets had a decreased risk of developing lung cancer. (2.) The researchers assumed that beta-carotene must play a crucial role in our health, so they synthesized beta-carotene into a pill and gave it to smokers, predicting that their cancer risk will decrease, just like they had observed in those eating foods high in beta-carotene. The results were shocking: the smokers who were given beta-carotene pills had an INCREASED risk of developing lung cancer compared to smokers who didn’t take the supplement (3.). You would think that scientists worldwide would decide that, if these pills are harming people, it would be unethical to give smokers these pills. But that’s exactly what they did. Over and over again for decades with the same results (4.). Antioxidant consumption from supplements doesn’t lead to positive effects in treating cancer (5.), and supplementing with antioxidants, especially multi-vitamins, has been shown to decrease overall lifespan (6.). Why do they keep trying to give people these potentially harmful substances? Because supplements are a multi-billion-dollar industry (7.). Pills are simply more profitable than plants.
Plants have combinations of hundreds, maybe thousands, of different antioxidants that work synergistically in the body. That’s why taking one nutrient out of a food and saying that it’s the reason the food is healthful is misguided. Understanding the interaction of the nutrients as a complex system of interconnecting pieces is more accurate.
What foods have high antioxidant content?
Overall antioxidant consumption from our diet can be measured, and is usually a predictor of overall health and decreased risk of disease (8.). That being said, some foods, even ones in the same food group, are much higher in antioxidants than others. These incredible (and persistent) researchers took more than 3100 foods and tested them for their antioxidant content (9.). From their research, you can see the huge differences of antioxidants between foods. For example: blueberries have about 6x the antioxidant content of bananas, while dried amla (indian gooseberry) has 141x the antioxidant content of blueberries. That means that one teaspoon of amla powder is equivalent to more than 1.5 pounds of blueberries. Oh my.
As Meal Plan Monday grows, we’ll take a closer look at specific foods and how they affect our health.
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