Anti-Oxidants 101

Blog #76   Andrew Siegel, M.D.

The image above depicts a meal teeming in anti-oxidants.  It is actually my lunch from today, which is very Mediterranean is style.  In the large bowl is a terrific salad with mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, red cabbage, onions, red pepper, olives, falafel and feta cheese; on the side is whole wheat pita bread with hummus; ice water with fresh lemon as a drink; for dessert, non-fat yogurt with fresh blueberries, strawberries and figs.  

Oxidation is a chemical reaction that occurs in the presence of oxygen and water: given sufficient time for the oxidative reaction to occur, the process is capable of altering physical appearances—and, unfortunately, not for the better. Oxidation is the process responsible for changing the original copper-colored Statue of Liberty into the greenish color it now appears.  Oxidation is responsible for changing the appearance of the exposed inner portion of a cut apple from white to a brownish discoloration. Oxidation corrodes the exposed iron on a scratch on our cars, causing rust.

Oxidation can promote the aging of our cells, the rusting of our cellular structure, if you will.  Insofar as humans are an immense array of cells organized into tissues and organs, oxidation is one of the processes responsible for causing aged, “rusty” human beings.

The oxidative stress theory hypothesizes that over the course of many years, oxidative damage occurs via the accumulation of by-products of our metabolism, from environmental toxins to which we are all exposed, and from the general wear and tear of our bodies. What results are free radicals, unstable oxygen compounds that contribute to DNA damage. These reactive oxygen species engender inflammation, aging, diseases, and ultimately, death. These reactive oxygen species adversely affect normal cell functioning. For example, free radicals can attack collagen and elastin (responsible for skin elasticity and tone), resulting in aged-appearing, wrinkle-laden, saggy skin. Free radicals can also damage cells in the eye, causing age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.

The great irony is that oxygen is an absolute necessity for life, but reactive oxygen species can shorten life. What to do? Anti-oxidants can slow the oxidative damage process. These are vitamins, minerals, enzymes and natural food pigments that act as “scavengers” that can mitigate the damage caused by the reactive oxygen species. The most common anti-oxidants are vitamins A, B-6, B-12, C, E, folic acid, lycopene and selenium. Many plants contain anti-oxidants—they are found in beans, fruits, vegetables, grain products and green tea. The bright colors of many fruits and vegetables are a good clue as to the presence of high levels of anti-oxidants—so  give some thought to adding a rainbow of colors to your diet including pinks, reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, and purples.  For a few examples, pinks include pink grapefruit; reds include pomegranate and tomatoes; oranges include squash, oranges, carrots, cantaloupe, papaya, apricots and sweet potatoes; yellows include butternut squash, bananas, mango and lemons; greens include broccoli, spinach, kale, kiwi, avocado, and asparagus; blues include blueberries and Belgian endive; and purples include plums, red grapes, cherries, purple cabbage and eggplant.

In addition to a bountiful intake of anti-oxidants, minimizing exposure to first-hand and second-hand cigarette smoke as well as excessive ultra-violet radiation from sunlight can help control harmful free radical accumulation. As beneficial as anti-oxidants are, they carry some potential negatives, specifically when it comes to their intake via vitamin supplementation.  For example, excessive beta-carotene (Vitamin A) supplementation has been linked in some studies to an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers. Mega amounts of Vitamin E in those with heart disease or diabetes have been associated with an increased risk of heart failure. It seems that no one truly knows all of the risks associated with high vitamin supplement doses, nor for that matter, all of the salutary effects of anti-oxidants on the aging process. Hopefully, ongoing scientific studies will further elucidate this matter. For the meantime, the best advice is to consume your vitamins by eating your fruits and vegetables, especially brightly colored ones. If your diet is inadequate in these terms, vitamin supplements in moderate doses can be an excellent source of anti-oxidants and may be considered a beneficial dietary measure until proven otherwise.

The ravages of aging, exposure to sunlight, tobacco, alcohol, environmental chemicals, etc., are constantly damaging our cells.  When a cell is damaged, on occasion this aberrant cell can replicate, multiply and ultimately develop a blood supply of its own—when this occurs, it is known as a cancer. Food and nutrition can act as a promoter or killer of aberrant cells.  Plants contain anti-cancer compounds,  so consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables, particularly vibrantly colored ones can be a boon to our health. The following are a list of some of the pigments in fruits and vegetables that can have profound salutary benefits: Indoles, found in cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli and brussel sprouts; lycopene, a red pigment found in tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit; carotenoids, an orange/yellow pigment found in carrots, corn and cantaloupe; anthocyanins, a blue/purple pigment found in blueberries and raspberries.

Here, then, is the take home message:  Choose a diet rich in plant-based foods from the colors of the rainbow—these will help to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of your cells in staving off disease processes as well as many of the signs/symptoms of aging.  They will provide you with all the vitamins and anti-oxidants you need to for optimal health and wellness.

Andrew Siegel, M.D.

Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food

Available on Amazon Kindle:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: