The word “antioxidant” has become one of the most popular buzzwords in the last few years. Every health and wellness website promotes foods that contain antioxidants, and hundreds of new “antioxidant” products have flooded the internet.

But do you really know what antioxidants are? Sure, you know they’re good for you, but is that all there is to know?

what are antioxidants

What Are Antioxidants and What Do They Do?

The word “antioxidant” is actually a compound word make up of two parts:

  • “anti” , meaning against
  • “oxidant”, from the word “oxidation“, which describes a chemical reaction in which hydrogen or electrons from one substance to the oxidizing agent.

Let’s get into that a bit more, but to do so we’ve got to go deep into the human body.

You know that the body is made up of tiny cells, which is itself made up of atoms. Each atom of your body contains a nucleus (core), protons, and electrons. Without all three parts, the atom would be imbalanced or incomplete.

When atoms are exposed to oxygen, the process of oxidation is the result. Sometimes oxidation can “break” the atoms, and the electrons of the atom float around without their stabilizing pair. When these single, unpaired electrons are present in the body, they steal electrons from other cells in order to complete their cellular structure.

They not only create a chain reaction of “broken” cells called free radicals, but the original free radicals that stole the new cells’ electrons are never fully repaired. Before you know it, free radicals have spread, and you have all kinds of problems.

What Free Radicals Can Do

When the cells being affected by the free radicals contain important DNA, the oxidative stress can cause a number of health problems, such as:

  • Eye degeneration
  • Premature aging
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Cancer
  • Heart Disease
  • Stroke
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Cognitive decline

These are just a few of the problems caused by free radicals.

Here are few things that cause the formation of free radicals:

  • Exercise promotes the oxidation of fat and sugar in the body, as well as the breakdown of muscle fibers.
  • When your body turns fat or food into energy, it is oxidized by your organs. Even turning healthy food into energy can lead to free radical formation.
  • Pollution, chemicals, and smoke fill your body with unstable chemicals, which, when oxidized, form free radicals.

What Antioxidants Can Do

Antioxidants essentially stop the process of oxidization, preventing the formation of free radicals before they are ever created. They can also stop free radicals from stealing the electrons from new cells, as the antioxidant compounds contain electrons that they can “donate” to complete the cellular structure of the free radicals. They can even help to repair any cellular damage that was done by the free radicals since they were formed.

Important: There is very little in the way of scientific proof of exactly what antioxidants can do in general. Many studies on specific antioxidants have found that they offer health benefits, but don’t let the hype convince you they are miracle workers. However, you can be sure that adding more of these healthy nutrients to your diet can improve your health. It may not be a “miracle cure”, but it’s certainly good for you!

citrus fruits are a source of antioxidants

How to Get More Antioxidants

Want to get more antioxidants in your diet? Here are a few foods to add to your meal plan:

  • Get more Vitamin E from pretty much any food that contains natural oils. Think coconuts, avocadoes, nuts, whole grains, and certain vegetables.
  • Drink wine and eat dark red grapes for lots of flavonoids, the dark antioxidants that give these foods their color. Soy, pomegranates, cranberries, and black tea are more sources of this antioxidant.
  • Citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries, and leafy greens are loaded in the healthy antioxidant and immunity-boosting Vitamin C. Tomatoes also offer you lycopene, an antioxidant that has proven effective at preventing prostate cancer and other prostate health problems.
  • Want more Vitamin A in your life? Add sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, and pumpkins to your diet to get easily-absorbed beta-carotene, or nosh on broccoli, prunes, collard greens, and apricots for Vitamin A.
  • Selenium can be found in garlic, eggs, brazil nuts, fish, shellfish, milk, whole grains, and red meat.
  • Green tea is an excellent source of EGCG, a powerful antioxidant that has proven to offer a wide range of health benefits.
  • Barley, flax, oats, and rye contain Lignan,  which helps to fight against invading pathogens and diseases.

Getting more of these antioxidants is the key to being healthy! You’ll find that these antioxidants will go a long way towards keeping your body working well as you age. Plus, all of the antioxidant-rich foods are also loaded with other important nutrients, ensuring a proper nutritional balance in your life.

Don’t think that antioxidants alone will keep you healthy. You need amino acids like glutamine, valine, leucine, and thiamine, all of which provide the building blocks for muscle in your body. You need to eat plenty of healthy (read: unsaturated) fats that help you to produce hormones and good cholesterol. With whole grains to provide complex carbs, you’re ready for a long life of clean, healthy living!