From foods and supplements to skincare, makeup and shampoo, it seems that antioxidants are everywhere nowadays. But what are they, and what do they do? And how do they benefit the body? Here, we’ll give you the lowdown on these small-but-mighty compounds, including how and where to get them.
Antioxidants are tiny molecules with big potential. That’s because it’s their job to fight free radicals in the body. Free radicals are another type of molecule that can cause harm to the body’s cells: in high numbers, they cause a state called oxidative stress, which is linked to a number of conditions including lower immune response, degenerative diseases, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Free radicals are highly reactive because they have unpaired electrons, meaning that they want to bond with surrounding molecules to complete their electron pairs. However, this process can cause damage to the body’s cells as their structure is altered by the reaction with the free radicals.
Certain lifestyle choices can expose the body to higher amounts of free radicals, for example:
- Living in areas of high atmospheric pollution
- Drinking large quantities of alcohol
- Exposure to radiation, including UV rays from sunbathing
- Consistently high blood sugar levels
- Eating large quantities of refined carbohydrates and sugars
While most of these risk factors are associated with what is generally seen as an “unhealthy lifestyle”, intense and prolonged exercise can also lead to higher levels of free radicals in the body, meaning that for athletes, antioxidants are especially important to avoid overuse injuries, longer recoveries and compromised immunity.
While free radicals can be dangerous in high quantities, our body actually produces them and they are important to our health in small amounts. For example, free radicals help our immune cells to fight infection.
Therefore, it is important to maintain a balance between levels of antioxidants and free radicals in the body. Interestingly, studies show that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a role in this modulation process, and they suggest that working to support the ECS could help to manage conditions related to oxidative stress.
Where Do Antioxidants Come From?
The human body can produce its own antioxidants, but they are also found in certain foods.
In fact, every plant and animal on earth produces its own antioxidants, so by eating unprocessed foods that are derived from plants (and, to a lesser degree, animals), we are able to get more antioxidants. It is mostly thanks to these high antioxidant levels that a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables is considered to be so healthy.
While specific antioxidant supplements do exist, most health practitioners recommend getting the antioxidants you need from a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, and botanicals, unless specifically recommended by a physician. This helps to maintain the delicate balance in the body without overwhelming the immune system.
Are There Different Types of Antioxidants?
There are thousands of different antioxidants, and they act upon the body in different ways, though all of them help to fight free radicals. Some are vital and we wouldn’t survive without them. Others, while they still have benefits, are less important.
Some vitamins contain high levels of antioxidants, most notably vitamin C and vitamin E, both of which are crucial to our body’s health.
Flavonoids, a compound found in abundance in high-quality hemp oil, are another type of antioxidant, and they are thought to have particularly potent anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties.
Minerals can also be antioxidants, including manganese, selenium, and zinc. Minerals such as these can be found in certain foods or taken as dietary supplements.