What is an Antioxidant, Anyway?

The word antioxidant is thrown around a lot, but what exactly is an antioxidant? In order to understand antioxidants we must first understand free radicals.

Free radicals are like little explosives that float around the body starting fires and causing damage to cells and DNA. Free radicals are produced in our bodies to fight infection and are designed to kill bacteria, viruses and other foreign materials. When inflammation becomes a persistent state as it is in diabetes, heart disease and most of today’s chronic diseases, it leads to the constant production of free radicals. Without a bacterial cell to destroy, these free radicals turn to our own cells. This is called oxidative damage and is associated with things like cancer, atherosclerosis, autoimmune disease and aging.

This is where antioxidants come into play. They prevent the oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Not surprisingly, our bodies have a built-in system to deal with free radicals. This system involves the production of enzyme antioxidants that effectively extinguish the explosives before they can do any damage.

Trace minerals to the rescue.
In order for these enzymes to function, the body needs trace minerals such as manganese, copper, zinc and selenium. Other nutrients act as antioxidants themselves: Vitamin E, Vitamin C and carotenoids, as well as flavonoids and certain botanicals.

Since the standard American diet (SAD) is devoid of many trace minerals, these enzyme systems often become depleted and simply don’t work as well as they should.

Needless to say, diet is a very important factor in the presence and production of antioxidants. You can, of course, supplement your diet with many of the necessary nutrients and compounds, but the most effective way to increase your antioxidant status is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. The sage advice to “eat a rainbow” every day is particularly relevant here. Food really is your best medicine.

—Dr. Tara

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