Everyone is talking about them and many web sites claim to sell you the best antioxidant supplements. But what exactly are anti-aging antioxidants and why are they important?
The common analogy used is that of iron rusting when exposed to air or even a piece of fruit (think banana or an apple) exposed to oxygen: they turn brown. That browning is the oxidative process at work but in our bodies that can wreak a lot more havoc than just a change in color.
What Is Oxidation?
Somewhere in your chemistry class you were taught that the electrons of molecules love to travel in pairs. The molecules within your body are no different. However, certain interactions of substances allow for an electron to be broken off leaving it unpaired and unstable.
Oxidation occurs when at least one electron is lost when substances interact with one another.
These molecules which are missing an electron are called free radicals. They may be caused by any number of both external sources such as pollution, sun exposure, smoking, microbes and from internal sources such as oxygen itself!
Yes, oxygen travels in your body in pairs, hence also known as O2. If this oxygen molecule should be split, creating a singlet, each single oxygen molecule is now an electron short.
This creates an unstable molecular state so each molecule will try to steal an electron anywhere it can to re-pair itself.
It is usually this interaction with oxygen that creates oxidation, although it can also occur with other molecules. Unfortunately, as humans we are oxygen loving creatures. We require oxygen for survival and use it in very import metabolic processes including energy production.
Why Is Oxidation Bad?
As we just said, the molecule missing an electron with try to steal it from another molecule. That will satisfy the first molecule, however, now the second molecule is missing an electron. So around and around we go stealing electrons!
This constant electron stealing may cause cellular damage which can lead to disease.
Disease typically happens when the molecules involved are those of our cellular DNA and cell membranes. This may either alter the DNA leading to cancer or make a cell membrane unstable & more permeable to other organisms and substances.
For us humans, the most biologically significant free radicals are those containing oxygen, also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS). Oxidants that develop in our bodies are typically from normal aerobic respiration, inflammation and basic metabolism.
In other words, oxidation occurs all the time! It is estimated that we produce about 10,000 free radicals every second!
If the rate of free radical production exceeds the rate we produce our own antioxidants then we develop oxidative stress.
So, we need to either ensure that we are capable to manufacturing enough endogenous anti-aging antioxidants or supplement via antioxidant rich foods!
What Is An Antioxidant?
An anti-aging antioxidant is a nutrient which may be a mineral, a vitamin or an enzyme that can donate an electron without becoming unstable itself. It breaks the vicious cycle of electron stealing!
The body is able to make several of its own anti-aging antioxidants enzymes such as:
- glutathione peroxidase
- superoxide dismutase
A diet rich in anti-aging antioxidants will provide the additional support to allow your body to neutralize the harmful effects from free radicals. These vitamins and minerals are:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin A
- Phytonutrients such as polyphenols
What Foods Contain Antioxidants?
Vitamin C. Also known as ascorbic acid and it’s a water soluble vitamin. Being water soluble means it will scavenge for free radicals in water based environments such as inside your cells. Good sources include many fruits and vegetables – strawberries, blueberries, broccoli, pineapple, brussels sprouts, kiwis, bell peppers, oranges, and papaya.
Vitamin E. This is a fat soluble vitamin and is also referred to as alpha-tocopherol. Alpha -tocopherol has the highest biopotency and also protects the fats in low density lipoproteins (LDLs) from oxidation. Good sources include wheat germ oil, almonds, sunflower seeds, peanut butter, corn oil, spinach, broccoli, and kiwi fruit.
Vitamin A. True vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin found in animal sources. Fortunately, if you are a vegetarian your body can make vitamin A when you consume the plant source of vitamin A known as beta-carotene. Animal sources include cod liver oil, butter, liver, egg yolks, mozzarella and cheddar cheese.
Beta-Carotene. The plant source of vitamin A (retinol) which gets converted by the body. An easy rule to remember is: think orange & leafy greens! Carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, squash, apricots, pumpkin, mangos, collard greens, spinach and kale.
Selenium. This is a essential mineral meaning that the body does not manufacture it and must be consumed in your diet. Selenium by itself is not one of the anti-aging antioxidants, however, it it essential for the enzyme production of glutathione. Glutathione is one of your power-house antioxidants. Good sources include rice, wheat, meats, and Barzil nuts (although that may vary depending on the soil selenium content). Fortunately, most of us have adequate selenium levels and deficits are rare.
Lutein. A carotenoid, but unlike beta-carotene it is not considered to be provitamin A. Lutein is best known for its association with healthy eyes (deficits may cause night-blindness) and is found in dark, leafy vegetables, collard greens, spinach and kale.
Lycopene. Lycopene is thought to assist in the prevention of heart disease by inhibiting free radical damage to LDL cholesterol. In laboratory experiments it shows to be even more potent than beta-carotene. Also a member of the carotenoid family, so look for foods with red coloring: guava, papaya, pink grapefruit, watermelon, apricots, blood oranges and tomatoes.
Polyphenols. Research is suggesting that the flavonoids in white & green tea do not have direct antioxidant qualities. Instead, it may be the uric acid produced from the flavonoid metabolism which accounts for their antioxidant effects. Either way, teas have demonstrated excellent anti-aging antioxidants properties.
How Many Antioxidants Do I Need?
The quantity of antioxidants in any given food item can be scored using the ORAC score.
ORAC stands for:
Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity
This antioxidant measuring scale was developed at the National Institute of Aging and measures how many free radicals a food can absorb. The FDA currently recommends a daily ORAC value fo 3000 to 5000 units.
Although experts cannot agree on the foods with the top 20 ORAC values, the United States Department of Agriculture has listed their top 10 foods as:
- Blake chokeberry
- Small red beans
- Wild blueberries
- Red kidney beans
- Pinto beans
- Artichoke hearts