Everyone has heard that antioxidants are great for health. We know the more that we eat them, the healthier we are. But what exactly is an antioxidant?
We get old because we fall apart, cell by cell and molecule by molecule. A correct way to look at this process is to think of it as rusting — or oxidizing is even more correct. Hence, the current health store buzzword — antioxidant, meaning to stop oxidizing.
The word “oxidize” means to chemically change a molecule by stealing one or more of its electrons, thus breaking chemical bonds. When a cellular molecule is oxidized, it is changed, mutated, made different than it was before the oxidation event.
The things that oxidize our body’s molecules include heavy metals, rancid fats, and numerous other chemical compounds we breathe, eat or drink. We call them free radicals or toxins. Since there are 100,000,000,000,000 cells in our body and thousands of molecules per cell, the process of oxidation takes quite a while to alter a majority of our body’s cells significantly.
Antioxidants to the Rescue!
We can think of oxidation in terms of oxidative hits, kind of like bullets being fired at our cells. If a bullet (free radical) strikes a cell wall, which is one kind of damage, if it strikes protoplasm that is another kind, and if reaches the DNA of our cells that is the kind of damage that really matters. The reason that damage to DNA is so much worse is that DNA contains the genetic code for the replacement cell that will be built. The DNA code is extremely complex. Slight changes to it render new cells useless.
We all remember from biology the cycle of cell division and then death of the old (parent) cell. We remember how the helical DNA code contains the instructions for this cellular replication. In our old age, cellular division can be likened to copying a VHS video tape. Each successive copy of a copy is worse than the previous one until eventually, copies are useless. During our youth, cellular replication is more like copying a DVD because the copies are always perfect. It’s only when damage to DNA occurs that we get faulty DNA replications because when a cell’s DNA is damaged, then the next replicated cell will contain an exact copy of the damaged DNA and further cell replications will also contain the faulty DNA code. If the DNA is damaged again, then future cell replications will contain an even worse copy and so forth. Eventually, the cellular copying mechanism itself is damaged, and our copies become VHS copies. At this point our body is old and discomfort, disease and death are near.
How do we stop DNA oxidation?
Stopping cellular damage means stopping damage caused by the bad guys that get inside our bodies. Now, if you were very rich and wanted protection from bad guys, you would hire body guards around you always and protect you from bad guys.
That’s exactly what we need to do to stop the bad guys from damaging our cell’s DNA — we need to hire body guards, in this case cellular body guards. Cellular bodyguards are known as anti-oxidants. There are numerous types of antioxidants. Vitamin C and Vitamin E, selenium and pycnogenol are well known antioxidants. Hundreds of different compounds and minerals have been identified as having antioxidant properties. Some are relatively weak bodyguards and some are like monstrous sized, Hercules type bodyguards.
As mentioned, oxidation occurs during oxidative hits or moments of damage... like bullets being fired at our cells. Bodyguards stand in front of our cells and take the bullet (oxidative hit) instead of our cells. So, the secret to not aging is to hire hordes of bodyguards (antioxidants) to stand around and protect our cells. Antioxidant bodyguards work best in teams of many different synergistic bodyguards, each protecting against a different type of oxidative hit. One special bodyguard even repairs bodyguards that have been damaged by oxidative hits.
Suppose you were rich and could hire many bodyguards, would you vacation Afghanistan or Somalia. Probably not, it’s just too dangerous. Similarly, you shouldn’t expose yourself to more free radicals, environmental poisons, heavy metals, etc. then you have to by putting lots of free radicals into your body. In other words, try to avoid oxidative hits, if possible.
Antioxidants for Immunity: Where to Find Them
Adding more fruit and vegetables of any kind to your diet will improve your health. But some foods are higher in antioxidants than others. The three major antioxidant vitamins are beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E. You’ll find them in colorful fruits and vegetables – especially those with purple, blue, red, orange, and yellow hues. To get the biggest benefits of antioxidants, eat these foods raw or lightly steamed; don’t overcook or boil.
Beta-carotene and other carotenoids: Apricots, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, corn, green peppers, kale, mangoes, turnip and collard greens, nectarines, peaches, pink grapefruit, pumpkin, squash, spinach, sweet potato, tangerines, tomatoes, and watermelon
Vitamin C: Berries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cauliflower, grapefruit, honeydew, kale, kiwi, mangoes, nectarines, orange, papaya, red, green or yellow peppers, snow peas, sweet potato, strawberries, and tomatoes
Vitamin E: Broccoli, carrots, chard, mustard and turnip greens, mangoes, nuts, papaya, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, and sunflower seeds
Other super foods that are rich in antioxidants include:
Vitamins aren’t the only antioxidants in food. Other antioxidants that may help boost immunity include:
Zinc: Found in oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, seafood, whole grains, fortified cereals, and dairy products
Selenium: Found in Brazil nuts, tuna, beef, poultry and fortified breads, and other grain products
How Much Do You Need?
For optimal health and immune functioning, you should eat the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of the antioxidant vitamins and minerals. That’s the amount of a vitamin or nutrient that you need to stay healthy and avoid a deficiency.
Here are the RDAs for some antioxidants:
Zinc: 11 milligrams for men, 8 milligrams for women; if you are a strict vegetarian, you may require as much as 50% more dietary zinc. That’s because your body absorbs less zinc when you have a diet rich in plant-based foods
Selenium: 55 micrograms for men or women
Beta-carotene: There is no RDA for beta-carotene. But the Institute of Medicine says that if you get 3 to 6 milligrams of beta-carotene daily, your body will have the levels that may lower risk of chronic diseases.
Vitamin C: 90 milligrams for men, 75 milligrams for women; smokers should get extra vitamin C: 125 milligrams for men and 110 milligrams for women.
Vitamin E: 15 milligrams for men and women
How Foods Boost Immunity
Can’t you get antioxidants from taking a vitamin or a supplement? Yes, but you may be missing out on other nutrients that could strengthen the immune system. Foods contain many different nutrients that work together to promote health. For example, researchers delving into the mysteries of fruits and vegetables and the complex antioxidants they contain have discovered benefits of:
Quercetin: a plant-based chemical (phytochemical) found in apples, onions, teas, red wines, and other foods; it fights inflammation and may help reduce allergies.
Luteolin: a flavonoid found in abundance in celery and green peppers; it also fights inflammation, and one study showed it may help protect against inflammatory brain conditions like Alzheimer’s.
Catechins: a type of flavonoid found in tea; catechins in tea may help reduce risk of heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
If you can’t get enough antioxidants in your diet by eating fresh produce, some experts recommend taking a multivitamin that contains minerals, too. But be cautious about taking individual immune system supplements to boost immunity. With antioxidants, as with most anything, moderation is key. Vitamins A and E, for example, are stored in the body and eliminated slowly. Getting too much can be toxic.