Antioxidants: The Body's Natural Detox

The term antioxidants is thrown around in health foods like nobody's business, almost as a label to signify a superior level of health for a food. "Loaded with antioxidants" or "antioxidant-loaded superfood" are common claims seen on things such as smoothies and supplements. The reality is that most people do not actually know what antioxidants are and what they do in our body or how they are beneficial to our health. Most of us just know they are "healthy" and just stick with that. 

What are they?

At a basic level, antioxidants help prevent and treat cell damage. Many everyday processes that occur in our cells produce molecules that are known as free radicals, these free radicals are highly unstable and can cause stress to our cells. We are also exposed to free radicals through our environment, things such as smoking, pollution and sunlight all expose us to these molecules. The stress this causes damage to our cells and even damage to our DNA itself and is thought to be linked to many conditions, including cancer, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease, autism, depression and many more. Antioxidants combat this stress to try and bring the cell back in to balance, think of it as a see-saw that is constantly tipping with the level of free radicals in the cell. 

How do they work?

Our body has its own complex system of antioxidants in every cell that are constantly working and we also can get antioxidants from foods and supplements. A general rule is that a richly coloured fruit or vegetables is usually high in antioxidants, berries, carrots, beetroot - all bright and all high in antioxidants. There are many different types of antioxidants, but they all neutralise the toxic free radicals, therefore "detoxifying" the body. This prevents the buildup of stress in our cells and keeps them healthy and functioning properly, therefore keeping us healthy! 

Richest food sources of antioxidants:

  • Dark chocolate
  • Berries
  • Pecans
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Red Cabbage
  • Beans
  • Goji berries
  • Beetroot
  • Spinach
  • Dried fruit

Are they always beneficial?

The research that showed that certain foods had antioxidant abilities only showed this effect in vitro, that means in a dish in a lab, not in a living human body. While this research shows that some foods are powerful antioxidants, researchers cannot seem to find this effect in vivo - inside a living human or animal. This doesn't necessarily mean that antioxidants don't work, but the research currently doesn't support antioxidants lowering our risk of disease. In fact, some studies show that high dose antioxidant supplements actually increase the risk of disease, particularly cancer! However, we know for a fact that eating lots of fruits and vegetables does reduce our risk of disease so something is going on, we just can't be sure that it is antioxidants. This isn't to say we shouldn't bother with antioxidants, just that we should be a bit more wary of these health claims and specific supplements. Instead, as always, we should be focusing on getting those fruits and veggies in to our diet!
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