Antioxidants 101: Everything you need to know about this life prolonging substance
Antioxidants have blown up in popularity but do we really understand its importance? The substance has now been studied extensively and is shown to be a key link to disease and aging .
- We’ll help you understand antioxidants’ role in our lives, sets us up to making more health conscious and impactful choices .
- Find out why we rely on antioxidants from foods for both preventative and healing benefits to our body. They work by reducing the impact of oxidation which can damage a cell’s DNA and membrane.
- Discover the many ways to take advantage of antioxidants and it may be easier than you think!
What are they? How do they work?
You see them everywhere. Advertised on what we know as “superfoods”. But what exactly are they?
Before we get into it we need to understand how our cells get energy…
Please note this is an oversimplification of quantum biology of oxidative phosphorylation.
Firstly, the journey starts with plants who get energy from the sun through a process called photosynthesis. High energy electrons (energy) are stored in plant matter which we eat to gain that energy. Cells store the energy and release it in a controlled manner (for us to use). However, it can’t do it all at once as it would be dangerous (think of putting gasoline – stored plant matter – on fire which would explode).
Secondly, once the cells get energy from the electron it passes it up to an oxygen molecule in a safe manner. Now oxygen (being unstable) loves electrons and will do whatever it can to get ahold of them. Your body generally does a good job of dispensing them after use but sometimes high energy electrons slip through.
Lastly, when oxygen get a hold of an electron when it shouldn’t have, this is where it becomes a superoxide (type of free radical). The process of both oxygen and the high energy electron combing is what causes the damage.
This is known as oxidation and will lead to your cells being damaged. Depending on where this happens, it can destroy specific parts of your cell such as the membrane and DNA (if close to nucleus).
Thankfully, your body has a natural defense mechanism against this destructive behaviour of these free radicals, antioxidants!
What are free radicals?
As mentioned above, they are unstable oxygen atoms which are wanting another electron to be stabilized. These oxygen atoms can “steal” an electron from many different parts in the body which include cell membranes and lipids. This causes damage which has been linked to disease and aging.
Here is an excerpt from a Time article that also explains it:
“Free radicals are generated as cells use oxygen to break down food for energy, and they can cause cell damage by attaching to other molecules and prompting cells to grow abnormally or by interfering with normal cell functions, including those in the brain.
Free radicals are a natural byproduct of the body’s metabolism, but in most cases, naturally occurring antioxidants stabilize them and keep the damage to a minimum.” 
Where do free radicals come from?
Free radicals can come from a variety of sources. Examples include :
- Xanthine oxidase
- Arachidonate pathways
- Ischemia/reperfusion injury
- Some externally generated sources of free radicals are:
- Cigarette smoke
- Environmental pollutants
- Certain drugs, pesticides
- Industrial solvents
Note: Free radicals may seem like they’re a 100% bad thing. However, they are required for regular bodily functions such as controlling blood flow and combating infections . As we always mention, it’s about balance.
You want to avoid too many free radicals and too little antioxidants.
Why are antioxidants important for me?
As we’ve seen, antioxidants have protective and healing properties to combat cellular damage. The antioxidants do this by sacrificing itself in the process to give oxygen another electron.
In addition, there have been a plethora of studies showing links between eating foods high in antioxidants and health benefits:
- Tumeric’s cancer blocking effect by preventing initial triggering DNA mutation 
- Antioxidants from fruits and vegetables act as first line of defense to reducing asthma and allergen sensitivity 
- Oxidative risk for atherothrombotic cardiovascular disease 
What are the different types of antioxidants?
There are many different types of antioxidants that serve different functions. Some of these includes :
- Proteins (Amino Acids)
- Alpha Lipoic Acid
Furthermore, this list is expansive and can be overwhelming deciding what you need to do to get all of these. We’ll break down some of the best foods you can eat to get a diverse group of antioxidants!
Where do they come from?
Antioxidants can come from a variety of sources, with the most important source being our diet. This makes it a challenge for people who eat a diet consisting of few foods. All antioxidants are not equal as well, some are more important than others.
Here’s the simple rule: On average, plant foods contain sixty-four times more antioxidants than animal foods. As the researchers put it, “Antioxidant rich foods originate from the plant kingdom while meat, fish and other foods from the animal kingdom are low in antioxidants.” 
Most people don’t get enough antioxidants from naturally occurring sources.
Below is a list of common foods and their antioxidant content. You can also check out this list of more than 3,100 foods and their antioxidant content.
List of 25 Common Foods and their Antioxidant Levels
|Product||Manufacturer / product label / country of origin||Antioxidant content in mmol/100g|
|Apples, Composite of Red
Delicious, Golden Delicious,
Granny Smith, Gala, & Fuji
|Beef||Beechnut Stage 1||0.08|
|Peanuts, Malawi nuts,
Traditional African Roasted
|Rab Processors Ltd,
|Walnuts, with pellicle||USA||15.16|
|Spinach, chopped, frozen||Green Giant||1.01|
|Almonds, without pellicle
(scalded using hot water)
|Pasta bolognese||Småfolk Barnemat, Norway||0.20|
|Bread, white||Plaza bakeri, Norway||0.20|
|Yogurt, 99% fat free, strawberry||Yoplait||0.11|
|Macaroni and cheese
|Hormel Kid’s Kitchen||0.12|
As evident from this list, whole foods that are plant-based will typically be more nutrient dense overall and have more antioxidants.
How do I know if a food is high in antioxidants?
A good rule of thumb (again) is that plant-based foods will be high in antioxidants.
“Spices, herbs and supplements include the most antioxidant-rich products in our study, some exceptionally high. Berries, fruits, nuts, chocolate, vegetables and products thereof constitute common foods and beverages with high antioxidant values. ”
One trick you can use with these foods is to cut it open and let it sit out in the air. The rate at which it decays (turn brown, rot), in the exposed parts, will give you an idea of how much antioxidants the food has.
Is there specific diets higher in them?
Yes, plant-based diets such as: vegetarian and vegan diets.
Can I supplement them?
No, there have been a number of studies showing the ineffectiveness of supplementing antioxidants [10, 11].
How do I know if I’m getting enough?
There are a couple of different testing methods for antioxidants[12,13] such as Pharmanex’s BioPhotonic Scanner. However, they are not accessible to the masses and can be quite expensive.
You will get all the antioxidants you need from your diet and a great tool to help you determine if you’re getting all the macro and micronutrients you need is Cronometer.
What happens when I don’t have enough?
There is a balance that occurs in your body. When there is more free radicals than antioxidants, there will be oxidative stress which leads to the damaging of cells and has been linked to disease (cancer) and aging. 
How long does it take for them to start working?
Antioxidants are always working. They’re produced by your body and it’s about maintaining the balance within your body so that the free radicals do not overrun the antioxidants you have.
Ultimately, there is no definitive marker to tell you that you have the level of antioxidants needed. One way to tackle this is to maintain a diet high in whole plant-based foods and make sure you get the required amount of daily vitamins from them.
 Greger, Michael, MD. “How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease.