Before taking a look at what antioxidants are we first need to know what oxidation is. Oxidation is a chemical process that we associate with things breaking down. For example, oxidation occurs when when a sliced apple goes brown or when things burn in air.
Oxidation is an essential part of our internal biology. We break down food in our gut, transport it around our bodies, burn it as fuel, and use this released energy to move our muscles and make new cells. All of this involves oxidation.
Indeed, every second of every day, thousands of different types of oxidation reactions occur within our cells. Far from being ‘a bad thing’, oxidation is a fundamental process of life.
Every day our bodies are exposed to negative elements, from pollution to chemicals to UV rays, that cause damage to your cells.
This damage weakens the molecules in your cells, causing them to lose an electron, a unit in the cell that carries electrical charges and allows your cells to work together.
These damaged molecules, called free radicals, or oxidants, try to gain back their missing electrons from other molecules. This in turn damages, or oxidizes, other healthy cells and turns them into free radicals too.
Normally, the body can deal with free radicals, but if antioxidants are unavailable, or if the free radical production becomes excessive, damage can occur. Free radical damage accumulates with age.
What causes aging?
Although there is yet to be a consensus by scientists on what specifically causes aging free radicals play their part.
A major part of the aging process is caused by damage to the structures and functions of the molecules, cells and organs.
The progressive damage to these structures and functions is what we perceive and characterize as aging(1).
In the video below Harvard Prof. Vadim Gladyshev discusses oxidative species, origins of senescence, and cumulative damage:
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants inhibit oxidation which helps to reduce or prevent the damage caused by free radicals. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by donating one of their own electrons, to the damaged molecule. This helps prevent free radicals from causing damage to healthy molecules.
Antioxidants include dozens of food-based substances you may have heard of before, such as carotenoids like beta-carotene, lycopene and vitamin C. These are several examples of antioxidants that inhibit oxidation, or reactions promoted by oxygen, peroxides and/or free radicals.
Foods High in Antioxidants
You are probably already consuming most if not all of the antioxidants you need. Eating a healthy and varied diet will provide all of the antioxidants your body needs. Some foods that are especially high in antioxidants that you may wish to consider including in your diet are:
- Goji berries
- Wild blueberries
- Dark chocolate
- Kidney beans
Are Antioxidants the Answer to Aging?
In a study conducted in the laboratories of Sohal and Orr(2)(3) it was observed that increased levels of antioxidant enzymes increased the lifespan of fruit flies. When the levels of antioxidants were suppressed the lifespan of the fruit flies decreased.
Taking additional antioxidant vitamins has been proven to be inefficient. Eating a healthy and varied diet will provide all of the vitamins and minerals needed.
The bottom line
The bottom line is that maintaining a varied and healthy diet is ultimately the best thing you can do to help minimize the effects of cell damage caused by free radicals.
Topping up on extra antioxidants and vitamins will not reduce the effects of aging but it is important to get enough of them in your diet to combat the free radicals in your body.