You’re probably already aware of the fact that antioxidants are great for us. Even so, it’s fascinating to see just how extensively and profoundly antioxidants can affect our health.
Here’s our pick of the top five ways in which antioxidants help us get healthier:
1] They Improve the Skin’s Health
The network that creates our skin’s structure is mainly formed by a protein called collagen, which keeps it hydrated, smooth and firm. The various cells found in our skin produce oils and pigments, giving it suppleness and colour.
Now, our body tends to generate free radicals (which are unstable molecules), as a natural consequence of the numerous processes constantly taking place within it. This ideally wouldn’t be a cause for concern, because our body also has its own antioxidant system, set up to neutralise excessive free radicals and protect us from the damage they otherwise cause.
But when pollution, the sun’s UV rays, smoking and other harmful factors also create free radicals in our body, the natural antioxidants can’t cope with their numbers. The free radicals go on to damage the skin’s structure and its cells, gradually leading to premature ageing, dullness, wrinkles, loose skin, pigmentation, and several other skin conditions. Since free radicals also initiate inflammation, serious issues like eczema and psoriasis can also crop up.1,2
Eating foods rich in vitamins C and E helps replenish the body’s natural store of antioxidants, thereby preventing free radical damage. Even carotenoids (a group of compounds that give red, yellow, orange and some green plants their colour) are powerful antioxidants in their own unique ways. Lycopene, a carotenoid that gives tomatoes its red colour, particularly stands out because of its tendency to line up against the skin’s uppermost layer. Acting like a shield, lycopene neutralises free radicals created by the sun’s UV rays right at the skin’s surface, thereby letting the remaining antioxidants in the skin fight other damage.
Carotenoids also have the added advantage of making our skin appear more radiant. In fact, a study indicates that people with comparatively higher levels of carotenoids in their skin are even perceived to be more attractive.3
2] They Relieve Painful Joints
Anyone who’s ever had joint pain knows that it’s not easy to ignore.
This happens when chronic inflammation (which is driven by free radical damage) triggers the immune system into attacking both infected as well as healthy tissue. Consequently, layers of tissue, including those of the cartilage, begin to slowly disintegrate. Even the cells that generally repair these problems are attacked by free radicals, compromising their functions.4 The joints eventually become stiff and cause pain when we move and/or lift heavy objects. The progressed state of this condition is called arthritis.
If you’re already feeling the pressure in your joints, a good dose of antioxidants can neutralise the free radicals that aggravate this process.4
Studies have gone on to prove that curcumin, a yellow compound that’s found in turmeric, is especially effective at soothing painful joints – which makes sense because of its powerful antioxidant properties.5
3] They Can Prevent or Manage Diabetes
The immense potential that antioxidants have to prevent and manage diabetes is good news, given Indians’ genetic predisposition to type-II diabetes.6-10
Diabetes is usually accompanied by either the increased production of free radicals or by impaired antioxidant defences (due to the high blood sugar and other metabolic struggles), which leads to multiple complications affecting the blood vessels, kidneys, eyes (retina and lens), nerves and the skin.11 Some of these can be managed by insulin injections and other medications- but not all. Here, a dose of antioxidants can go a long way.
The phytonutrients in grape seeds are called proanthocyanidins, and have an exceptionally high antioxidant power: 20 times greater than vitamin E and 50 times greater than vitamin C! Proanthocyanidins are believed to be highly beneficial for diabetic people – insomuch that their effects are comparable to those of an anti-diabetic drug called metformin.12
Both the antioxidants from grape seed as well as metformin work by allowing the cells, which have become resistant to insulin, to finally start using the glucose in our blood. They also reduce the production of glucose by our liver, lowering blood glucose levels, and improving the blood’s cholesterol profile.
The (primary) difference between the two? Metformin has been linked to heart problems, while proanthocyanidins, like many other antioxidants, have therapeutic effects on the heart – incidentally, our next topic.13,14
4] They Improve Heart Health
You’re never too young to take care of your heart. According to the American Heart Association, even young and middle-aged individuals can develop heart problems, given that obesity, type-II diabetes and other risk factors are becoming increasingly common at a younger age.15
Free radicals can contribute to heart problems, by interacting with the “bad” form of cholesterol called LDL, and turning it into a more reactive, oxidised form. The oxidised LDL damages the protective inner lining of blood vessels, which makes them inflamed.
Constant inflammation, from oxidised LDL and the excess free radicals, gradually leads to the accumulation of immune cells and other blood particles at the site of damage. This build-up narrows blood vessels, eventually blocking them and leading to heart disease and stroke.16
Antioxidants can neutralise excess free radicals and the oxidised LDL, thereby either preventing the build-up or slowing down the progression of existing blockages.
Lycopene (the compound from tomatoes seen in #1) is believed to specifically prevent free radicals from reacting with LDL, and generally reduce the risk of heart disease via its antioxidant properties.17-20
5] They Improve Eyesight and Prevent Eye Problems
Free radical damage in the eyes, as well as their nerves and blood vessels, can lead to issues like blurry vision and poor night vision. As we get older, these seemingly simple problems may eventually lead to severe age-related eye issues.21
Beta-carotene, one of the nutritional world’s more famous carotenoids, is the orange pigment found in carrots. Our body converts beta-carotene to a form of vitamin A, which plays a large role in our ability to see in dim light.22
There are two other carotenoids called lutein and zeaxanthin, which, along with beta-carotene, filter harmful wavelengths of light, and act as antioxidants in the eyes, helping protect and maintain healthy cells.22 Dark leafy greens are a good source of these carotenoids.
Even the development of age-related diseases like cataracts can be delayed by antioxidants like vitamin E, vitamin C and curcumin (antioxidant mentioned in #2).21
6] They Improve Liver Health
The liver is the body’s principal detoxifying organ, and plays a central role in metabolism.
Its health is heavily influenced by antioxidants because it metabolises various compounds, some of which produce free radicals. When there aren’t enough antioxidants to neutralise the free radicals, liver disease ensues. Several antioxidants, including those found in green tea, coffee, grapes, tomatoes and citrus fruits, have been used to treat liver diseases worldwide.23
Antioxidants can even be used to mitigate drug-induced liver toxicity.24 Since it’s primarily the liver that metabolises the drugs entering the body, you’d see how using more drugs to fix a damaged liver is probably a bad idea. Here, antioxidants coming from natural sources have a distinct edge over other treatments.
While this article highlights some of the key antioxidants, many others are found in several everyday food sources – even in spices we find in our kitchen cupboard (like chilli peppers, ginger, garlic, pepper, cinnamon etc.).
Our ‘Eat the Rainbow’ series has also explored the antioxidant benefits of many phytonutrients, which are pigments found in food.
Unfortunately, even a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can sometimes fail to replenish our innate antioxidant system. A good tip to keep in mind is to eat fresher, local ingredients for richer sources of antioxidants. Supplements are another route as well. Either way, the benefits will soon manifest in almost every part of your day.
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15. ADA. Top 10 Myths about Cardiovascular Disease. 2015
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22. Alvarez R, et al. Chem Rev 2014, 114(1): 1-125.
23. Casas-Grajales S, Muriel P. World Journal of Gastrointestinal Pharmacology and Therapeutics 2015, 6(3): 59-72.
24. Singh D, et al. Frontiers in Physiology 2015, 6: 363.
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