The Protective Power of Antioxidants


So you’ve been eating dark chocolate and drinking red wine for their antioxidant health benefits, but do you know exactly how they’re helping your body? And what other foods and supplements contain them?

Like glutamine or other amino acids, antioxidants are thought to protect your body from wear and tear. They work in different ways: while glutamine acts as fuel, antioxidants defend against damage on a molecular level.

Because of how antioxidants work—by adhering to damaging atoms called free radicals—they are thought to help combat cancer, intercept the damage of environmental pollution, and prevent age-related degenerative disease.

Free radicals—ready to mingle

The oxygen we breathe is made up of paired molecules—two bonded oxygen atoms (O2). But sometimes a single oxygen atom* escapes its partner, and it becomes what’s known as a free radical.

Free radicals are clingy and will stick to other molecules, corrupting them. More often than not, this can set off a chain reaction of molecular damage. These reactions are most dangerous when they occur on cell membranes or DNA, because they can seriously disrupt critical cellular function. Free radicals can also stick to cholesterol, which some believe leads to the formation of arterial plaques.

Free radicals are produced in the body naturally, as a byproduct of normal function. But they can also be created in excess through high levels of activity, and by exposure to environmental pollution or radiation.

What are antioxidants?

Quite simply, antioxidants are molecules that bond to free radicals before they have the chance to cling to your cells. And once a radical is paired, it’s no longer apt to cause cellular damage.

Seven common antioxidants

Vitamin C. Beyond citrus, vitamin C is found in berries, melons, kale, kiwi, mangoes, papaya, bell peppers, snow peas, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and radishes.

Vitamin E. Get vitamin E from nuts and seeds, olives, apricots, red peppers, flaxseed oil, as well as leafy greens, like chard, mustard and turnip.

Beta carotene. Think orange, pink, and green. Apricots, cantaloupe, carrots, tangerines, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash, mangoes, corn, nectarines, peaches, pink grapefruit, tomatoes, watermelon, beets, asparagus, broccoli, green peppers, and leafy greens all provide beta carotene.

Quercetin. Quercetin is easy to take—get it from tea or red wine, as well as from common fruits and vegetables.

Zinc. A mineral found in oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy.

Selenium. A trace element you can get from brazil nuts, tuna, beef, poultry, and whole grain products.

Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA). ALA is a popular antioxidant that also helps the body replenish vitamins C and E. Contained in yeast, organ meat, spinach, broccoli, and potatoes, this antioxidant is often used to by people with memory loss, chronic fatigue, liver disease, Lyme disease, and diseases of the eye.

Research is beginning to look more closely into the role of free radicals—many believe that the action of some free radicals in the body is beneficial. With that in mind, antioxidant treatment isn’t designed to remove all trace of free radicals, but to help prevent excessive amounts from attacking the body.

So if you’re concerned about the damage that environmental pollution may be having on your body, or if you’re involved in strenuous or long-term activity, look to your diet or supplement regimen for extra protection.


*Other types of unpaired atoms can act as free radicals, but oxygen is the most frequently discussed.

The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.