To truly appreciate the value of antioxidants, you first need to understand why you need them. Oxidation is the chemical process that causes oil to turn rancid and metal to rust. Unfortunately, your body is also susceptible to oxidative stress and damage.
Oxygen is a necessary evil and creates harmful by-products
Oxygen is essential for life and in itself not toxic. However, it forms the basis of highly reactive ions, aka reactive oxygen species (ROS). The fact is that we cannot live without either oxygen or ROS. ROS include substances like hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), superoxide (O2-), and the hydroxyl radical (OH-). They can be free radicals or non-free radical intermediates and are produced inside your body under normal conditions. Free radicals are atoms with unpaired electrons. This attribute renders them highly reactive and capable of easily causing chain reactions that generate more free radicals.
Defending against mitochondrial dysfunction and damage
Your mitochondria thrive on oxygen too and are a significant source of ROS. They metabolize (burn) oxygen and produce energy, in the form of ATP. Unfortunately, mitochondrial proteins, membranes (lipids), and DNA are also very susceptible to damage by ROS, which not only impairs their ability to create ATP along with a slew of other functions but also activates apoptotic (programmed cell death) machinery or necrosis (cell death due to disease, injury, or other failure). Further, deterioration of DNA can lead to mutations and modify gene expression. There are numerous pathologies / conditions associated with mitochondrial oxidative damage, dysfunction, and death (e.g., cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative / neurodevelopmental disorders, certain cancers, cataracts, and even blood abnormalities). Hence, mitochondrial support in the form of supplements and drugs is a growing area of research. Clinical trials are now focusing on mitochondria-targeted antioxidants such as melatonin (the sleep hormone) as common antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E have not performed favourably.
Other sources of oxidative stress: controllable factors
Besides the mitochondria, disease / illness, and cellular enzymes, there are also external triggers for ROS production, including:
- Exposure to ionizing radiation (X-rays, the Sun, gamma rays, infrared / visible light, etc.)
- Xenobiotics (synthetic drugs, food additives, agricultural / industrial chemicals environmental pollutants, cosmetics, fragrances, carcinogens, etc.)
- Life circumstances (indirectly), as it is most often your mental and emotional response rather than what actually happens to you that steers the way we feel and act. (Note: oxidative stress in the brain has been observed in people who suffer from severe life stress and is implicated in several mental disorders)
Dealing with reactive oxygen species (ROS) is a balancing act
While your body naturally produces antioxidants to neutralize some of these ROS, it simply can’t keep up! Your body’s ability to defend against ROS often falls short of the need, i.e. oxidant generation outstrips antioxidant response. Part of this has to do with lifestyle / age, while a much smaller part is somewhat intentional. Plot Twist: ROS actually play a critical role in cell signalling and communication and many beneficial physiological processes, when created in a controlled environment, i.e. there is a balanced response to the production of ROS overall. These include cell and blood vessel growth and function, wound healing, nerve cell transmission, immune protection (by destroying invading pathogens), hormone production and metabolism, etc. When the concentration of ROS increases, your cellular detoxification and repair capabilities are negatively impacted, compounding the problem.
Sources of antioxidants: food, natural remedies, and key supplements
To combat the accumulation of ROS, you can turn to antioxidant-rich fruit, vegetables, and herbs, although your need will typically outweigh what food alone can provide. The physiological, environmental, physical, mental, and emotional stressors you encounter on a daily basis increase your antioxidant requirements and reduce your body’s ability to create them naturally. Thus, you should consider supplementing with a combination of different antioxidants for maximal coverage and effectiveness: amino acids, enzymes, minerals, vitamins, plant pigments, hormones, etc. Below are my Top 3 antioxidants at the moment; I encourage you to work with a naturopathic physician to determine which ones best suit your needs and how to incorporate them into your routine.
When your body needs to detox, look no further than glutathione, a key detoxifying agent in the liver. N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) can boost your body’s own production of glutathione.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
Another excellent general antioxidant is vitamin C, make sure you are taking the appropriate dose for your needs and do not forget about food sources. Antioxidant vitamins help fight inflammation and infection and lower the risk of some chronic diseases.
Melatonin not only supports a healthy sleep / wake cycle but is also very versatile at scavenging ROS and protecting DNA. It directly supports cellular detoxification and indirectly maintains the balance of oxidant enzymes plus much more. A few animal studies suggest that it is more powerful than glutathione and vitamin C for some conditions.
All antioxidants scavenge and sequester ROS protecting you from cell damage and untimely cell death, the human versions of spoiling and rusting. While you need some ROS to maintain homeostasis in many physiological processes, an overproduction can damage your cells and tissue. Be proactive to keep the pro-oxidant: antioxidant balance in check and oxidative stress at bay.