Humans have one of the longest natural life spans of the animal kingdom and this may in part be due to the wealth of antioxidants in our omnivorous diet. Research shows antioxidants help our bodies resist heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and in fact, are implicated in preventing more than 60 different diseases. Antioxidants are a critical part of our lives yet most of us don't know exactly what they do or appreciate how they do it.

Antioxidants Combat Free Radicals

Antioxidants are believed to help control how fast we age by combating free radicals. Our bodies produce free radicals as a result of normal metabolism and energy production. Free radicals are a biological response to environmental toxins, such as cigarette smoke, chemicals, sunlight, cosmic and manmade radiation, and even a key feature of pharmaceutical drugs. Free radicals are also produced when we have inflammation in our body, and when we exercise. A free radical is a highly reactive metabolite missing one or more electrons. Free radicals seek to steal electrons from many of the proteins in our body resulting in damage to our DNA and other cell structures. Free radicals can have a snowball effect in which molecule after molecule steals from its neighbor, each one becoming a new free radical once it's been electron-robbed. Free radicals, with their missing electron, are largely responsible for the process of biological oxidation.

Oxidation – The Body's Rust

There is a duality to oxygen. Without it we would all be dead in a few minutes, however if we have too much it will damage our tissues. Oxidation is like biological rusting and similar to what occurs to iron that is dumped in the ocean. Cut into an apple and witness oxidation, as the apple turns brown from exposure to the air. Lipids in cell membranes are quite prone to oxidative damage because free radicals tend to collect in cell membranes looking for that missing electron. When a cell membrane oxidizes it becomes brittle and leaky. Eventually, the cell falls apart and dies. This is similar to what happens when butter, vegetable oils or meat become rancid. Unfortunately this is going on inside our bodies every day.

Antioxidants Are The Unsung Heroes

An antioxidant is a molecule capable of inhibiting the oxidation of another molecule. Antioxidants break the free radical chain of reactions by sacrificing their own electrons to feed free radicals – without becoming free radicals themselves. Antioxidants are nature's electron donors. Our bodies naturally circulate a variety of nutrients for their antioxidant properties and manufacture antioxidant enzymes in order to control these destructive chain reactions. But our bodies need our help.

Where Do Antioxidants Come From?

Vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenes, and lipoic acid are well-known and well-researched antioxidant nutrients. Our bodies can manufacture some of these antioxidants, but not others. And our body's natural antioxidant production tends to decline with age. Fortunately, most vegetables are loaded with potent phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. And the closer they are to being harvested, the more potent these antioxidants will be—which is why we should consume the majority of our fruits and vegetables raw and locally harvested. If we eat vegetables that have been harvested weeks before we will not be reaping as much of the potential benefit the food has to offer. Our bodies require these important micronutrients to help resist aging, generated by everyday exposure to pollutants in our food, water, and air. If we don't have adequate antioxidants to help squelch free radicals, then oxidative stress tends to lead to accelerated tissue and organ damage and ultimately aging.

Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress can be defined as when free radicals outnumber antioxidants. The best way to combat free radicals (therefore slowing aging down) is to make sure we get ample antioxidants in our diet. Our first and most important source will be from high quality organic locally grown whole foods. Wisely selected supplements have also been shown to be highly beneficial in addition to our food choices.

There Are Two Types Of Antioxidants

1. Non-enzymatic antioxidants work by interrupting free radical chain reactions. Most non-enzymatic antioxidants are found in food. However, the antioxidants in food boost our enzymatic antioxidant defense system by disarming the free radicals, which helps prevent depletion of our enzymatic antioxidants. For example, vitamin E may interrupt a chain of free radical activity after only five reactions, instead of 100 reactions. Non-enzymatic antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, plant polyphenols and carotenoids

2. Enzymatic antioxidants are produced by the body and break down and remove free radicals. Glutathione is one of the most important ones and has been called the "master antioxidant" and is found in every single cell of our body. It maximizes the activity of all the other antioxidants. In general, these antioxidant enzymes flush out dangerous oxidative products by converting them into hydrogen peroxide, then into water, in a multi-step process that requires a number of trace mineral assistants (copper, zinc, manganese, iron plus selenium). We can't supplement these enzymatic antioxidants orally but we can provide the trace minerals necessary for their manufacture. A good quality Himalayan salt is an excellent source.

Repairing The Damage

  • A few unique antioxidants can repair a damaged molecule by donating a hydrogen atom—and this becomes very important when the molecule is a critical one, like our DNA
  • Most antioxidants found in foods and supplements are of the non-enzymatic type. They boost our enzymatic antioxidant defense system by disarming the free radicals, which helps prevent depletion of our enzymatic antioxidants. Optimize antioxidant intake by making sure to eat a large variety of locally grown fresh organic vegetables. Juicing is a convenient way to increase intake
  • Toxic metals such as mercury and arsenic catalyze free radical production. Some antioxidants (such as green tea) have the ability to grab these metals so strongly that no chemical reaction can take place—this is called chelation
  • Whey proteins have a remarkable ability to stimulate the body's genes to increase its natural defenses
  • Exercise can help increase the antioxidants our bodies manufacture for us. Paradoxically exercise is actually a potent oxidative stress but by doing wise amounts of exercise it will help improve our body's capacity to produce antioxidants
  • Resist sugars and processed foods. Reducing our sugar intake will decrease our antioxidant stress so that we will need less antioxidants, and the ones we have will work better and last longer