A lot of health claims are made for dietary antioxidant foods and vitamins, the main one being that they can delay the effects of aging, or fight off diseases.
What is an antioxidant and why is it important?
Antioxidants are the human body’s great defenders against all manner of illness.
Before we go any further, it would be well to define what an antioxidant nutrient is and where are antioxidants found. Antioxidants are natural substances produced in the body or obtained from the food we eat.
Antioxidants act like scavengers in our bloodstream neutralizing the oxidized by-products of our body cell’s activities. Vitamins A, C and E are antioxidant vitamins common in the human diet, and they play a role in scavenging what are called “free radicals“.
Free radicals are volatile molecules that try to stabilize themselves by taking electrons from other molecules. Molecules that are vulnerable to attack include the polyunsaturated fatty acids contained in the membranes surrounding body cells.
Once the molecules have relinquished an electron to a free radical, the tissue becomes damaged. The free radicals are believed to play a role in several degenerative diseases, such as heart disease and some cancers, and are thought to be involved in aging.
The appropriate use of just the right antioxidants can prevent cancer cell development and even reverse many forms of serious diseases whose primary cause is excess oxidation (free radical damage to cells). It also helps protect red blood cells from rupture by oxidizing agents.
Biochemically, Vitamin E certainly helps prevent oxidation in situations where it should not occur. It helps protect cell membranes, and also protects Vitamin A and polyunsaturated fatty acids as they are transported through the bloodstream.
A number of natural substances have antioxidant potential, but the main ones we should be trying to eat every day include Vitamins A, C and E, the mineral Selenium and Zinc, and the enzyme called simply Coenzyme Q10.
Taking each antioxidant nutrient in turn, let’s examine antioxidant properties in the best form of supply to the body.
1. Vitamin A
Vitamin A is familiar to us in yellow and orange vegetables and from fish oils such as cod liver oil. The best antioxidant form of Vitamin A, however, is called “Beta-Carotene” which is derived, as you might guess, from vegetable sources such as carrots, apricots, and mangoes.
Beta-Carotene is actually a “pro-Vitamin” or in other words, it is the raw material from which our bodies can manufacture its own Vitamin A. Beta-Carotene also has no toxicity at high levels, unlike other vitamin A sources which can be toxic in large doses.
Beta-Carotene exerts a particularly protective antioxidant effect on cells from various cancers. Beta-Carotene also reduces the incidence of coronary heart disease and improves HDL cholesterol.
2. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is the next antioxidant hero, one of the most important of all the vitamins and one of the most easily lost or destroyed by improper food preparation or storage. The body cannot store large amounts of vitamin C, so we must replenish our supplies day by day.
- Vitamin C, like Beta-Carotene, has a major role to play in preventing cancer cell development.
- Vitamin C prevents scurvy and helps keep body tissues in good condition.
- Vitamin C is needed in the diet to keep healed wounds closed and to encourage normal healing.
Most Vitamin C is obtained from fruit and vegetables. The citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, mandarins, and grapefruit), pawpaw, pineapple, berry fruits, and tomatoes are very good sources of vitamin C.
Raw vegetables are quite rich in vitamin C so it is a good idea to serve salads as often as possible. Eating salads is very easy in the summer but you need them in the winter too, to provide a defense against infection.
Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and green peppers are also rich in vitamin C.
3. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is next, a powerful antioxidant vitamin with a recently acknowledged track record for reducing the incidence of heart disease and atherosclerosis.
As a fat-soluble vitamin, Vitamin E is particularly important in protecting our body cells from rancid fats the breakdown of which results in free radicals from rapid and highly toxic oxidization.
Oxidized free radicals in the walls of arteries which are the real cause of plaque formation that contributes to hardening of the arteries – not cholesterol as such. This fact has only recently been acknowledged as the culprit in cardiovascular disorders.
Vitamin E is found in the following foods: fruit, vegetables, and whole-grain bread and cereals. Foods are rich in Vitamin E include many vegetable oils, including sunflower, soy and peanut oils, whole grains, wheat germ, leafy green vegetables, and liver.
4. Zinc and Selenium
The minerals zinc and selenium are called co-factor antioxidants because they enhance vitamin antioxidant’s effectiveness.
The importance of zinc as a nutrient especially with reference to its role in fortifying the immune system. So, it is logical to find zinc playing an active role in antioxidant activity as well.
Selenium potentiates the antioxidant effect of vitamin E and together the two nutrients are a major cancer fighter in the body. As with vitamin E, it is not possible to eat selenium in sufficient quantities via foods because there is no guarantee of adequate selenium content in most soils.
Tuna fish has been recommended as a selenium source, also garlic, but the latter would only be useful if grown on high selenium soil.
5. Coenzyme Q10
Coenzyme Q10 also called Ubiquinone (from the word ubiquitous meaning everywhere), because it occurs widely in foods. None-the-less, the level of Coenzyme Q10 declines in the body with age as liver function decreases.
Coenzyme Q10 has a direct effect on the body’s cell metabolism by assisting its energy production. In its antioxidant role, Coenzyme Q10 is another cancer cell inhibitor.
- Apple raises HDL, boosts immunity, helps diarrhea.
- Banana prevents bowel cancer and colitis.
- Broccoli prevents cancer, especially bowel, prostate and breast.
- Broad bean fights bowel cancer.
- Brussel sprouts prevent cancer especially bowel, breast and prostate.
- Bean raises HDL and benefits the heart.
- Cabbage: antioxidant.
- Carrot aids digestion and rectifies constipation and diarrhea, boosts immunity and possibly protects against cancer.
- Cauliflower prevents cancer, especially, bowel, breast and prostate.
- Celery benefits nerves and internal organs.
- Garlic: antibiotic, cleans the blood and stale mucus from tissues, nourishes nerves and increases glandular secretions.
- Ginger: antacid, helps eliminate colon gas; add to bath to open pores and rid body of toxins.
- Lemons: antiseptic, good for gargle.
- Macadamia raises HDL and lowers other cholesterol.
- Mandarin calms intestines.
- Marmalade: sugar-free and chunky prevents wind.
- Onion reduces cholesterol.
- Orange boosts immunity and prevents bronchitis, prevents wind.
- Oat prevents heart disease and diabetes, reduces cholesterol.
- Pasta raises HDL and lowers heart disease, especially in women.
- Pumpkin seed protects against prostate disease.
- Pea improves circulation and sweetens the blood.
- Pear reduces diarrhea.
- Potato boosts immunity, protects against bronchitis.
- Prune: high in antioxidants, prevents cancer and heart disease, mild laxative.
- Pumpkin improves immunity and possibly protects against cancer.
- Raisins: antioxidant.
- Red pepper boosts body function and immunity.
- Rye improves cholesterol and prevents heart disease.
- Soybean protects against heart disease, cancer, bone disease, lowers cholesterol, helps fight breast and prostate cancer, PMT and menopause.
- Spinach prevents memory loss and Alzheimer’s.
- Strawberry: antioxidant.
- Tomato: antioxidant, protects against prostate cancer, heart disease.
- Watermelon reduces the bloat, good for kidneys.
- Zucchini helps reduce heart attacks, birth defects.