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Diet is our best source of antioxidants

By Andrea Walker

There is a constant battle going on inside our bodies to keep us safe and healthy. The free radicals vs the antioxidants.

A free radical is a molecule that is produced by normal metabolic processes in the body or from external sources like pollution, sun exposure, radiation, cigarette smoke, pesticides, alcohol, certain foods (especially fried), medicines and even stress.

Think back to high school chemistry. Everything including the cells in our bodies are made up of atoms. At the inner part of the atom is the nucleus, which contains neutrons and protons, and the orbits around the nucleus contain electrons. These electrons are in pairs which make them stable.

Free radicals are oxygen containing molecules with a missing electron which make them highly unstable. This imbalance causes them to go on a rampage and steal electrons from other healthy molecules creating a chain reaction where the healthy molecule turns into a free radical and the cycle repeats. This cycle is known as oxidisation and is a natural process essential to life. It enables the production of energy, defence against pathogens such as bacteria and viruses and other necessary functions.

However, when levels of free radicals become too high, it can damage DNA, cell membranes and other parts of cells. This is known as oxidative stress. It is an imbalance between the production of free radicals, and the body’s ability to control or eliminate them. Oxidative stress can lead to premature aging (lines, wrinkles, age spots) and many diseases such as cardiovascular disease, arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer. Oxidative stress naturally increases with age.

Luckily, we have a hero in this story… antioxidants! Antioxidants swoop in and give the free radical one of its own electrons turning it back into a stable molecule and preventing other cells from being attacked. Unlike free radicals, antioxidants are very stable and don’t mind losing an electron. The body can replenish them.

You need an adequate supply of antioxidants to disarm free radicals. The challenge is to maintain a balance between the two. Some antioxidants are made by our body such as glutathione (the master antioxidant) and lipoic acid. Glutathione has the ability to maximise the activity of all other antioxidants. Other antioxidants are found in the food we eat. The most familiar ones are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene along with carotenoids flavonoids, polyphenols, selenium, manganese and zinc. The production of antioxidants declines with age.

Diet is the best source of antioxidants. Research has shown that people living in countries with a high fruit and vegetable intake live longer and have lower rates of cancers and heart disease. Eating a balanced diet which includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices will provide a wide range of antioxidants. The colour of these foods is a clue that they are good sources.

As you can see the battle of the free radicals vs the antioxidants can be won if you make good dietary and lifestyle choices.