In most simplified terms, antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in the human body. If free radicals outnumber antioxidants, it can lead to a scenario called oxidative stress.
In this article, we will examine the basic properties of antioxidants and free radicals. *
What Are Free Radicals?
There are many types of free radicals, but most of them are derived from oxygen and are collectively known as reactive oxygen species (ROS) . They are naturally formed in the body from intermediary steps in normal biochemical reactions, but when generated in excess, uncontrolled, and unlimited amounts, they can wreak havoc on a broad range of molecules and cells.
One of the primary features of free radicals is they have incredibly high chemical reactivity, which helps to explain how they damage cells.
How Are Free Radicals Created?
While excess free radicals are incredibly detrimental to human health, they do play specific, crucial roles .
For example, free radicals form naturally when mitochondria [the powerhouse of the cell] absorb oxygen, and the immune system, through white blood cells, produces oxygen free radicals to fight harmful pathogens .
However, being in an abnormal environment, such as an environment with too little or too much oxygen, consuming certain medications, and being exposed to ionizing radiation can cause an unhealthy level of free radicals .
Research has also found that specific lifestyle characteristics can contribute to the creation of free radicals, such as air pollution, smoking, alcohol, increased blood sugar  , excess consumption of polyunsaturated fats , regular sunbathing, infections, excessive intake of magnesium, iron, copper, or zinc , prolonged and intense exercise , excessive intake of antioxidants , and antioxidant deficiency .
Research has firmly linked extended periods of oxidative stress to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer induction and proliferation, accelerated physical aging, and lipid peroxidation [oxidative degradation to lipids (think cholesterol)] .
However, following the Universal Law of Polarity, everything that exists has an equal and exact opposite, and that is where antioxidants come in the scene.
The body uses antioxidants to neutralize free radicals and keep levels within a normal, healthy range.
Getting Antioxidants Through Foods
In a 2010 study, researchers noted, “A balance between free radicals and antioxidants is necessary for proper physiological function,” noting that antioxidants are necessary for healthy human life .
In point of fact, the body’s cells produce their own antioxidant called glutathione, which is made from three amino acids: cysteine, glutamate, and glycine .
Even animals and plants have mechanisms to protect against free radicals.
Consequently, people can increase their antioxidant intake by consuming specific whole foods, primarily being plant sources.
In a 2004 study, researchers noted fruits and vegetables are excellent sources because of the variety of antioxidants they offer .
In a 2010 study, researchers examined the antioxidant content of more than 3,100 foods, beverages, spices, and herbs worldwide .
The researchers noted, “Spices, herbs, and supplements include the most antioxidant-rich products in our study, some exceptionally high. Berries, fruits, nuts, chocolate, vegetables, and products thereof constitute common foods and beverages with high antioxidant values” .
Now, when they say chocolate, they do not regard milk chocolate that is half its weight in sugar. The researchers considered dark chocolate with a high cocoa percentage.
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Sadly, though, when researchers investigated various contributors to antioxidant intake in the Western diet, coffee ranked highest, only because the Western diet lacks wholefood diversity  .
Specific meat sources, such as fish, also contain antioxidants, but their concentrations are nowhere near those of plant sources   .
Great antioxidant sources include berries (black, blue, rasp, cran, straw), nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews), hardy vegetables (artichokes, asparagus, avocados, beetroot, collard greens, kale), and herbs and spices.
Varieties of Dietary Antioxidants
Dietary antioxidants fall into two categories: water-soluble or fat-soluble.
Water-soluble antioxidants primarily neutralize free radicals in the bloodstream, blood plasma, and cell cytosol [the liquid inside a cell], while fat-soluble antioxidants protect cell membranes from lipid peroxidation.
Several essential dietary antioxidants include vitamin C , vitamin E , and bioflavonoids.
Most people know about vitamin C and vitamin E, but flavonoids are lesser-known. At the most basic level, bioflavonoids are the kinds of antioxidants in plants, the same plant sources mentioned above .
Other common foods also contain antioxidants, such as curcuminoids in turmeric and oleocanthal in extra virgin olive oil. Not only do these two compounds act as antioxidants, but they also have anti-inflammatory properties  .
As with everything, there needs to be a healthy balance, and this strongly applies to antioxidant supplements.
Many antioxidant supplements contain large amounts of a few antioxidants. However, this can promote oxidative damage, not prevent it. Researchers have dubbed this phenomenon the antioxidant paradox  .
For this reason, it is generally not recommended to take high-dose antioxidant supplements, but lower-dose antioxidant supplements, such as a multivitamin, may still be beneficial.
As researchers continue to investigate this phenomenon, studies will be published that will determine healthy dosages and types of antioxidant supplementation.
In this article, we examined the fundamentals of antioxidants and how they combat free radicals. We also investigated the best food sources of antioxidants – plant sources – and noted excess antioxidant supplementation could be unhealthy.
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* This article is for informational purposes only. By providing the information herein, Healthmasters and its associates are not diagnosing, treating, curing, mitigating, or preventing any disease or medical condition. Before beginning any natural, integrative, or conventional treatment or regime, it is advisable to seek the advice of a licensed healthcare professional.