What Are Antioxidants and how do they Work?
To understand what antioxidants are and how they work, we first have to have a simple chemistry lesson on free radicals. What are free radicals?
They are atoms or groups of atoms (molecules) that are missing an electron. Electrons like to be in pairs. When you have a single electron in an atom or molecule it ravages other cells and robs them of one of their own. This process not only damages the cell but causes that cell to become a free radical since it is now the one missing an electron. This process can cause a chain reaction continuing to damage cells until it is stopped. This is called oxidation.
It is important to understand that oxidation has its role. It is by oxidation that the body slowly and carefully breaks down food and stores it for potential energy. The irony is that this same process can damage our cells causing premature aging, muscle soreness and fatigue, disease, etc.
Where do Free Radicals come from?
Something as simple as breathing can be a problem, as oxygen is an example of free radicals. The very source that gives us life also causes that oxidation process. Athletes, who do a lot of aerobic exercise, naturally take in more oxygen and can be vulnerable to accelerated free radical oxygen damage. Over time this cellular damage can lead to injury, longer recovery, extreme muscle soreness, etc. Other sources of free radicals are everything from toxic metals in our bodies such as lead, to things like pesticides, ionizing radiation, alcohol and cigarette smoke. Sun damage can also be a source of free radicals as well as eating fried food. All of these examples combined can wear down the muscle tissue and cause our bodies to wear out and age a lot faster. The causes are many, and it can seem like a hopeless situation. That is where antioxidants come in.
Antioxidants, Nature’s Superheroes!
Antioxidants are the antidote to the damage caused by oxidation in our bodies. Antioxidants are free radical scavengers. They can neutralize a free radical by donating one of their own electrons without causing problems within their own structure. While antioxidants are manufactured within the body it is not enough to combat all the oxidation happening. Making sure we are getting antioxidants from foods we eat and other supplemental sources is critical to our health and vitality. Current research shows antioxidants may benefit in the fight against allergies, cancer, help with inflammation, and viruses. They can help increase recovery time in athletes as well as provide what is termed, "Nature’s Sunscreen". Specific herbal sources of antioxidants can even target certain areas of the body, helping not only repair tissue damage but carry in needed nutrition as well.
Antioxidant Foods, Eating Your Way to Better Health
A good rule of thumb is the darker the fruit or vegetable the more antioxidants it contains. For example, berries are EXTREMELY high in antioxidants. So are your dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale.
To get your best sources of antioxidant foods, you want to look at raw fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. Vitamins C&E are antioxidants as well as Vitamin A. Be careful, however, because research shows that it is necessary to get these vitamins from the foods themselves to gain the maximum benefits. Do not be fooled into just taking a vitamin supplement and think you are getting the antioxidants you need. Think instead of the produce section of your local grocery store. Vitamins C and E work synergistically, or in other words, they work better as a team than individually.
An additional caution, be aware that cooking your food (including pasteurization) destroys both Vitamins C and E so look to eat raw fruits and vegetables. The ascorbic acid put back in is not complete Vitamin C and will not provide the same antioxidant benefits as eating the whole food.
For sources of Vitamin C think of oranges, strawberries, pineapple and Kiwi. For Vitamin A, turn to carrots, sweet potatoes and apricots. For Vitamin E choose nuts, seeds and healthy vegetable oils.
To have a diet rich in antioxidants, have a diet full of healthy fruits and vegetables. Try to eat a good size salad every day. Eat fresh fruit for breakfast. Grab a handful of nuts on your way out the door. Snack on some fresh or frozen blueberries. With a little focus you can easily make antioxidants a part of your daily food intake.
Make a conscious effort to include these in your lifestyle and begin eating your way to better health.
Herbal Antioxidants Can Help Target Specific Health Concerns
Herbs are a FANTASTIC source of antioxidants that do not get enough attention. Many of these antioxidant herbs have proven to consistently concentrate in certain areas of the body making it easier to work on. For example, Gingko is an herb that is growing in popularity. It is an antioxidant that can go to your head, literally. It concentrates in the brain, in the eyes and in the inner ear. Pairing it with other antioxidant herbs like Gotu Kola and Rosemary has proven very effective with memory, macular degeneration in the eyes, helping soothe ADD and many other related health problems.
Here are some additional herbs for specific areas:
For the liver, bitter herbs like: Milk Thistle, Dandelionand Parsley
For digestion, pungent herbs like: Turmeric, Ginger, Cayenne and Mustard.
For the heart: Hawthorne Berry and Cayenne
For the entire body: Grape Seed Extract and Ginseng
Research is clearly connecting the dots between health and the role of antioxidants. Knowledge of how herbal supplements can target specific areas of the body helps us in improving our overall health. Choosing raw fruits and vegetables as well as nuts and seeds can flood our bodies with plenty of antioxidants, including Vitamins C & E. By understanding and utilizing the information in this article we can empower ourselves to increase our energy, decrease our recovery time after strenuous exercise and begin to take back our health!
Terri Johnson is a stay at home mom with five children. She is currently a student for the School of Natural Healing and is working toward becoming a Master Herbalist. The personal experiences she has had with her family, especially her young daughter with Down’s Syndrome has motivated her to share how proper nutrition along with herbal supplements can create remarkable results in overall health. Terri believes that through knowledge comes empowerment over your own health and the health of those you care about.
If you are interested in additional ways you can take back your health, fun healthy recipes, or you are curious about some of the tremendous experiences Terri and her family have had since her herbal education began, please visit Terri’s website, Roots of Healthy Living for more information.