What Are Antioxidants, Anyway?

Admit it: You've read innumerable articles gushing over how one food or another was “rich in antioxidants” and you have no idea what an antioxidant is or why you should even want one inside you.

That's okay. We'll give you a quick and succinct 411 on all things anti-oxidant. But first, hold tight while we dip back into some necessary high school chemistry.

Everything, including your body, is made of molecules, and those in turn are made from atoms. The atoms have a core of protons and neutrons, circled by electrons – like a planet orbited by its moons. The atoms combine to make molecules, the molecules combine and re-combine to make different molecules. That process we call “chemistry.” The various chemical processes as they occur collectively inside your body, we call “metabolism.”

You want the molecules involved in your metabolism to be “stable.” That is, contain the right amount of electrons to balance the nucleus they orbit. If molecules lose electrons (hey, it happens!) they become unstable and can damage other molecules – like the molecules of your DNA, for instance. These rogue, negatively-charged, unstable molecules are known as “free radicals.” The metabolism situation with free radicals can get out of hand quickly, as the chemical reaction caused by one free radical can trigger a chain reaction, creating even more of them.

Enter the antioxidant. These molecules give free radicals the electrons they are missing, effectively neutering them. Understand that free radicals are made for a reason, and are even utilized by our immune system to battle infection. But when the free radicals outnumber the antioxidants, our bodies enter a state called oxidative stress.

Our modern lives are filled with free radical-creating triggers. Some of these include: alcohol, cigarette smoke, air pollution, high blood sugar levels, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and tanning salon radiation. We can even tip the balance to free radicals through excessive consumption of normally healthful minerals such as copper, zinc, and magnesium; or even an excessive amount of antioxidants such as vitamin C and E. Some studies have even shown that high doses of antioxidants increase the risk of death!

Your body will make antioxidants on its own, but because we are bombarding ourselves with so many free radical-spawning triggers each day, we need to supplement that process a little bit. Cue the food companies, who enjoy marketing the “antioxidant properties” of what they sell. We can't speak for them all, but you can't go wrong with any of the following:

  • Coffee
  • Green tea
  • Turmeric
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Vitamins C and E
  • Grapes
  • Blueberries
  • Dark green and orange vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Fish

It's worth noting that studies have shown that foods counter oxidative stress better than supplements, so loading up on pills and powders won't do as good a job as eating a diet rich in fruits and veggies.