What are Free Radicals, and Why Are Antioxidants So Important?
Updated: Jul 24, 2019
As I was typing up a recent recipe for my Morning Matcha Smoothie, it occurred to me that with a lot of my recipes, and other recipes that I share, I talk about how an antioxidant-rich diet and antioxidant-rich foods are so beneficial for the body. Which got me thinking that while most of us know antioxidants are important, but we don’t really know why they are important.
Free radicals are linked to aging and a host of diseases, but little is known about their role in human health, or how to prevent them from making people sick.
What are Free Radicals?
“A free radical can be defined as any molecular species capable of independent existence that contains an unpaired electron in an atomic orbital. The presence of an unpaired electron results in certain common properties that are shared by most radicals.” Source
In a nutshell, free radicals are generated by our body by normal essential metabolic processes or exposure to external conditions, such as x-rays, air pollutants, smoking and industrial chemicals. Meaning that even the healthiest person, with zero exposure to outside chemicals or toxic substances, will still produce free radicals as a natural form of physiology.
Unfortunately for us, we have to try to manage the fine balance between the free radicals produced in our bodies, and the right amount of antioxidants, to ensure proper physiological function. If free radicals become too high in the body, and our body no longer has the ability to regulate them, a condition known as ‘oxidative stress’ can occur. In turn, this can lead to a whole slew of human diseases, as well as significantly speed-up the signs of aging. Fun times!
Some internally generated sources of free radicals are:
Mitochondria (the cells source of energy);
Phagocytosis (a biological process used to remove pathogens and cell debris);
Ischemia injury (restriction of blood supply to tissues).
Some externally generated sources of free radicals are:
Certain drugs and pesticides;
It is ironic that oxygen, an element indispensable for life, under certain situations has damaging effects on the human body.
As you can see from the first list above (internally generated sources), there are many ways that the body produces free radicals, some of which are considered part of a healthy lifestyle (ie. exercise). In addition, as the body ages, we lose the ability to naturally fight the effects of free radicals. And as vicious cycles go, the more free radicals floating around the body, coming up against less and less defense, the more oxidative stress occurs, which in turn leads to increased cell damage and increased degenerative processes. Sounds uplifting, doesn’t it?
But don’t fret friends, the good news is, there are some preventative measures we can take to help decrease our risk of oxidative stress. Amen to that.
Enter the Antioxidant
“While there are many ways to describe what antioxidants do inside the body, one definition of antioxidants is any substance that inhibits oxidation, especially one used to counteract the deterioration of stored food products or removes potentially damaging oxidizing agents in a living organism.” Source
Research suggests that when it comes to longevity and overall health, consuming a diet rich in antioxidant foods can have the following effects on the body:
Slower signs of aging
Healthier, more youthful looking skin
Reduced cancer risk
A more efficient detoxification process
Protection against heart disease and stroke
Reduced risk of cognitive or degenerative diseases, like dementia
Generally longer life span
So at this point we know what free radicals are and how they play a role in the body, and we know why consuming antioxidants is beneficial as a defense system, so the question remains, what are the best foods to eat to get the best bang for your buck?
In general, the most common fruits and vegetables in the diet that contain antioxidants include forms like vitamin E, lutein, vitamin C, beta-carotene, flavonoids and lycopene. You may have already heard of a few of these before. And why there is currently no official RDA (recommended daily allowance) for antioxidant foods, in general, the more whole, fresh foods you consume each day, the better.
Top 5 Antioxidant Rich Foods
Goji Berries - These little babies are quite expensive, but the good news is, a little goes a long way. My favourite way to consume these are either in a homemade trail mix, or in these fantastic Morning Glory Muffins by Joyous Health.
Wild Blueberries - One of the best fruits to snack on, blueberries are also antioxidant powerhouses. They are perfect in a smoothie, on top of oatmeal or try them in my popular Blueberry Lemon Flax Muffins.
Dark Chocolate - Enough said.
Pecans - Pecans are so delicious, and should be a staple in your pantry. I personally love using them in either muffins or homemade granola. Try them in this granola recipe from one of my favourite cookbooks, Run Fast Eat Slow.
Artichoke - I have to admit, I rarely (and by rarely, I mean never) eat artichokes, but it’s a vegetable I want to start incorporating into my diet. I’m thinking I might start with this salad recipe here. Looks delicious!
Top 5 Antioxidant Rich Herbs & Spices:
Clove - Another one that falls in the category of ‘a little goes a long way’, this spice is so perfect for any fall or winter inspired recipes.
Cinnamon - A serious pantry staple, I just love this little spice. I use this religiously in my Turmeric Latte’s throughout the winter months, and it’s the feature flavour in my Cinnamon Protein Loaf.
Oregano - Fresh always trumps dried when it comes to herbs, but especially so when it comes to oregano. I have a recipe coming shortly to the blog that takes advantage of this antioxidant rich herb, so watch this space!
Turmeric - My absolute favourite, this spice is such a powerhouse for so many reasons. My Turmeric Latte is where I use this the most, but throughout the winter I probably make this Chickpea, Quinoa and Turmeric Curry recipe from Deliciously Ella a few times a month.
Cacao - Again, enough said! Just make sure to use raw cacao instead of processed cocoa powder, as that’s where all the nutrition lies. (Check out the graphic below for all the details.)
So there you have it. Now you know all about free radicals, oxidative stress, antioxidants and the best antioxidant rich foods, herbs and spices to start incorporating into your diet this week. I hope this was helpful, so comment below if you have any questions.