Every single one of us has both antioxidants and free radicals present inside of our bodies at all times. Some antioxidants are made from the body itself, while we must get others from our diets by eating high antioxidant foods that double as anti-inflammatory foods. Our bodies also produce free radicals as byproducts of cellular reactions. For example, the liver produces and uses free radicals to detoxify the body, while white blood cells send free radicals to destroy bacteria, viruses and damaged cells.
When certain types of oxygen molecules are allowed to travel freely in the body, they cause what’s known as oxidative damage, which is the formation of free radicals. When antioxidant levels in the body are lower than that of free radicals — due to poor nutrition, toxin exposure or other factors — oxidation wreaks havoc in the body. The effect? Accelerated aging, damaged or mutated cells, broken-down tissue, the activation of harmful genes within DNA, and an overloaded immune system.
The Western lifestyle — with its processed foods, reliance on medications, and high exposure to chemicals or environmental pollutants — seems to lay the foundation for the proliferation of free radicals. Because many of us are exposed to such high rates of oxidative stress from a young age, more than ever we need the power of antioxidants, which means we need to consume high antioxidant foods
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.
Antioxidants include dozens of food-based substances you may have heard of before, such as carotenoids like beta-carotene, lycopene and vitamin C. These are several examples of antioxidants that inhibit oxidation, or reactions promoted by oxygen, peroxides and/or free radicals. (1) Research suggests that when it comes to longevity and overall health, some of the benefits of consuming antioxidant foods, herbs, teas and supplements include:
Slower signs of aging, including of the skin, eyes, tissue, joints, heart and brain
Healthier, more youthful, glowing skin
Reduced cancer risk
Longer life span
Protection against heart disease and stroke
Less risk for cognitive problems, such as dementia
Reduced risk for vision loss or disorders like macular degeneration and cataracts
Why do we need antioxidants, and what do specific antioxidants do inside the body once consumed?
Antioxidant sources, like antioxidant foods, herbs, spices and teas, reduce the effects of free radicals, also called oxidative damage/stress, which plays a major role in disease formation. The leading health problems facing us today — including conditions like heart disease, cancer and dementia — have been linked to increased levels of oxidative damage and inflammation. In simplest terms, oxidation is a chemical reaction that can produce free radicals, leading to other chemical chain reactions that damage cells.
History of Antioxidants Knowledge and Their Usage
It’s not exactly agreed upon who first “discovered” antioxidants. Antioxidants have been dated in medical literature to the early 19th and 20th centuries, but researchers and health experts have been discussing them for much longer. Each antioxidant has its own unique history of discovery. Some, such as vitamin C and vitamin E, were first researched by doctors, such as Henry A. Mattill during the 1920s–1950s, used to explain why animals fed whole foods lived longer and remained healthier. (2)
Joe McCord is another researcher credited with discovering the function of antioxidant enzymes like superoxide dismutase, mostly by mistake, and noting how all organisms held these beneficial compounds inside their bodies but less so as they aged. (3)
Today, the level of antioxidants in any substance or food is evaluated with an ORAC score, which stands for “oxygen radical absorption capacity. ORAC tests the power of a plant to absorb and eliminate free radicals. These measurements were developed by the National Institute of Aging and are based on 100 grams of each food or herb.
Most common fruits, vegetables and herbs in the diet that contain antioxidants include forms like vitamin E, lutein, vitamin C, beta-carotene, flavonoids and lycopene. While there is currently no official recommended daily allowance for antioxidants or antioxidant foods, generally speaking the more you consume each day from real foods in your diet the better.
Goji berries: 25,000 ORAC score
Wild blueberries: 14,000 ORAC score
Dark chocolate: 21,000 ORAC score
Pecans: 17,000 ORAC score
Artichoke: 9,400 ORAC score
Elderberries: 14,000 ORAC score
Kidney beans: 8,400 ORAC score
Cranberries: 9,500 ORAC score
Blackberries: 5,300 ORAC score
Cilantro: 5,100 ORAC score