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How to supply your body's antioxidant needs, for a long healthy life

By David Coory

They neutralise oxidising free radicals that age our body and damage our DNA. Oxidising means ‘damaged by oxygen’.

When fruit goes brown and becomes rotten after just a few days, that’s the result of oxygen damage and bacterial infection. Yet we can preserve fruit for up to 5 years by first boiling to kill all bacteria, and then sealing it from oxygen in an airtight glass jar.

Free radical damage can also be likened to rust on bare metal. Rust will eventually destroy the metal if not treated with rust killer, which is also an antioxidant.

Health damage caused by free radicals

Free radical damage to our body begins when we are a baby and slowly damages our cells and DNA throughout our life. This process can result in old-age diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, artery and heart disease, cataracts, macular degeneration, MS, lupus, ALS, Huntingtons disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Diabetics, heavy drinkers, drug users and athletes need more antioxidants than normal. Free radicals can also damage our DNA code, causing new cells to grow cancerous.

Antioxidants speed our health recovery

Antioxidants also play a big role in recovery from stroke related brain damage, coronary heart damage, and serious body injuries. Researchers have found about 50% less tissue damage, in animal studies, when antioxidants are given immediately after an injury.

Some free radicals necessary for health

It’s been said that free radicals ‘make you old’ and antioxidants ‘keep you young’. This is mostly true, but some important functions in our body do require some free radicals.

One way to understand this is to compare free radicals to fire and antioxidants to water. Both are necessary in their right place, but water quenches fire.

We can likewise compare free radicals to carbon dioxide and antioxidants to oxygen. Our body needs vast amounts of oxygen (in fact it’s our main nutrient), but we would die without some carbon dioxide as well.

So for excellent health and long life, it is necessary that both antioxidants and free radicals be kept in the correct balance within our bodies.

Best antioxidant foods

Although our body makes its own highly effective antioxidants, we still require antioxidants from food. These antioxidants are: vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K1, magnesium, zinc, manganese, selenium. Flavonoids and carotenoids contain thousands of coloured pigments and herbal compounds from plants.

Each predominant colour, blue, purple, red, green, brown, etc, contains different antioxidants. Turmeric is a particularly powerful plant antioxidant, especially the bright yellow curcumin component. A chart of plant foods high in antioxidants is found on page 5.

Meats also contain powerful antioxidant minerals, like selenium, magnesium and zinc. However, a balanced diet with whole grains, vegetables and fruit provides us with a much wider range of antioxidants.

Spinach for a better memory?

Although spinach does not rank high on the standard ORAC antioxidant scale, in a series of studies on rats reported in the Journal of Neuroscience, spinach-fed rats were found to have a better short-term memory and much better long-term memory than rats eating the standard control diet. Spinach was particularly potent in protecting the brain against the effects of ageing. Cocoa also did very well.

The ORAC test measures a foods antioxidant activity. Dieticians recommend 4000 ORAC units per day for optimum long term health (the average person gets only about 1400). We need to try and include a variety of antioxidant food.

Antioxidant rich foods

Below is a list of ORAC values from antioxidant rich foods. However they can vary 50% up or down depending on richness of soil. ORAC is a measurement of how many free radicals an antioxidant can replace and stands for ‘Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity’.

However, antioxidants are highly complex, as there are several different types, each with varying roles to play in our body. In addition to the orac foods, we obtain significant antioxidants in our diet from whole grains, nuts, all vegetables, coffee, tea, olive oil, onions and asparagus.