I was planning on starting a brief series about trendy food items today. I was going to write about curcumin, then apple cider vinegar, then bone broth… whether the health benefits that you’ll find listed online are actually all that they claim to be. But you’ll have to wait another week for that to start. While researching curcumin I found that a lot of its benefit comes from the ability to act as an antioxidant. Then I realized that folks might need some background on what that really means – sure, we’ve heard about antioxidants before, but what are they really? So let’s start with some background instead.
In a nutshell, oxidative stress in the body leads to inflammation, which is strongly associated with chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s etc. OXidative stress is counteracted by ANTI-OXidants. Do you follow the similarity in the names there?
But what causes oxidative stress? We are exposed to unstable molecules called ‘free radicals’ from smoke, alcohol, pollution, and other environmental sources. Because these free radicals are so unstable, they act on nearby molecules in our body through a process called oxidation and change their chemical structure (stealing an electron), therefore changing the way they behave in our body.
One example is that LDL cholesterol transport proteins may become denser or more sticky, making it more likely to get stuck to our artery walls. This forms plaques and increases the risk of atherosclerosis, which in turn leads to heart attack, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease.
We actually form some free radicals naturally in our bodies – some oxidation occurs as a natural part of our metabolic pathways and daily activities. It is when that oxidation starts to outpace the availability of molecules called antioxidants that we can start to get in trouble. Antioxidants are able to donate electrons to the free radical, neutralizing it.
Inflammation is the body’s natural defense against damage or invasion. Acute inflammation is generally good. It’s protective – the body is warding off infection and healing itself – a fever raises our body temperatures because the heat helps fight off invading bacteria that are trying to make us sick.
Inflammation can become a long-term process, a chronic state of being, in response to many things in our modern lifestyle. Some scientists believe that obesity is a state of chronic inflammation. Free radicals and oxidation is just part of that. Chronic inflammation is bad. It is chronic inflammation that is associated with all those disease I listed at the beginning of this post – cancer, diabetes, CVD, Alzheimer’s…
And I assume that we all want to avoid chronic diseases. So where is a good place to start? Eating lots of fruit and vegetables. Of course.
Show me the antioxidants!
Fruits and vegetables tend to be high in antioxidants. Diets high in fruits and vegetables are associated with lower disease risk. But just taking antioxidant supplements doesn’t show any particular benefit and in certain situations can actually be harmful (for example, smokers who supplement with beta-carotene are more likely to develop lung cancer). The supplement versions can also interact with other medications that we might be taking (such as blood thinners).
So why don’t supplements work? It could be other components of the food that contains the antioxidant that helps the antioxidant itself be absorbed or utilized in the body, or that the chemical structure of the antioxidant in the supplement differs from that in the food, affecting its function. It could also be that people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables may follow healthier lifestyles in general – they may be more active and less likely to smoke.
So where can we get these good antioxidants?
- Vitamin A – milk, butter, eggs, liver (it’s fat soluble and these foods all carry some amount of dietary fat).
- Carotenoids – red, orange, deep yellow, some leafy greens. Cancer and eye health.
- Carrots, tomatoes, sweet potato, winter squash, spinach, Brussels sprouts.
- Vitamin E – plant-based oils. Cancer, heart disease.
- Vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, margarine.
- Vitamin C – citrus fruits and red vegetables. Immune help, collagen production, plus helping with iron and folate absorption.
- Oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, tomatoes, red peppers.
And the cool thing is that these vitamins provide more than just antioxidants, many of them also affect the expression of some of our genes through DNA transcription and translation or have functions that affect the structure of various molecules in our body. For example, a B vitamin (niacin found in fish and poultry, among other things) plays a structural role in DNA repair and vitamin A actually contributes to the structure of the back of our eyes that help us see in dim lighting.
Remember, my food philosophy is to focus on real, nutrient dense foods and those antioxidant-rich foods I listed above definitely qualify. There isn’t a lot that we can do about certain environmental factors that cause oxidation such as pollution, second-hand smoke, or sun exposure, but we can eat lots of colorful fruits and vegetables to help counteract the free radicals that might be formed from those exposures. And that’s a great start.
Come back next week and I’ll have that post about curcumin for you now that you have a little bit of background. And leave me a comment if there are any other food trends that you’d like to read about!
Hey, we’re all unique. The information on this blog isn’t a substitute for individualized advice from a healthcare professional. Check with your doctor before making any major changes to your lifestyle.