Why all the hype about Antioxidants?

After seeing so much about “antioxidant-rich” health foods and supplements, I’d become pretty well convinced that antioxidants were just a fad targeted at well-meaning people who want to be healthy. Having rolled my eyes at all these ads one too many times (and following my successful debunking of some vitamin C myths in a previous blog post), I finally decided to do a little research into the topic, and discovered that antioxidants actually are important – although the health claims many companies make may be stretching it a little.

Antioxidant-rich foods such as blueberries certainly look tasty, but are they really doing much for our health? Image credit: Public domain, via Max Pixel.

What are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are a fairly broad group, including molecules such as vitamins A, C, and E, beta-carotene, and selenium. But what do they do? Basically, they help our bodies out by preventing other molecules from oxidising, though we need a little background in chemistry to understand what this means.

Molecules are basically just groups of atoms, which are made up of three key components – protons, neutrons, and electrons. When the body metabolises oxygen, it takes electrons from other molecules, thus oxidising them and changing how they interact with other substances.

A molecule which has lost an electron is known as a “free radical” and will take an electron from another substance, consequently altering how it acts and turning it into a free radical too. This starts a chain reaction within a cell.

While free radicals can be good for our immune systems, the bad news is that they also cause something known as “oxidative stress”, which contributes to a range of problems such as Parkinson’s disease, some motor neuron diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, and many cancers. Unfortunately, free radicals are created more frequently in response to many common features of our daily lives, such as stress, alcohol consumption, smoking, sunlight exposure, and pollution.

So this is where antioxidants come in. As they are stable enough to lose an electron without turning into a free radical, they can safely donate one to a troublesome radical to neutralise the threat and stop the chain reaction. This means that having enough antioxidants in your body could help lower the risk of free radical-related diseases, so it’s understandable that people would want to bump up the amount of the molecules in their bodies!

How do we get Antioxidants?

We need a variety of antioxidants and get a lot of them through plant-based foods, so it’s important to eat healthily and keep a balanced diet – you can check out a list of antioxidant-rich foods here. Our bodies do also produce some antioxidants of their own, with the hormone melatonin being an important example.

Our brains create melatonin during darkness, with light receptors in the eye helping to guide when to begin production. This typically means we’ll be synthesising the hormone around nightfall when light levels are dropping (and this makes sense as melatonin also helps to guide our sleeping patterns).

However, this also means that any artificial light we are exposed to at night might interfere with the production of melatonin. Consequently, our modern technology such as streetlights and mobile phones mean we might not be producing as many antioxidants as we would naturally, leading to increased oxidative stress and potential for damage and disease.

Exposing ourselves to light at night is interrupting our hormone and antioxidant levels. Image credit: Public domain, via pxhere.

What’s Best for our Health?

So if we want to keep using our phones at night (or struggle along with a not-quite-balanced diet), can we just supplement our antioxidant intake with some hyped-up health food or pills? Unfortunately it looks like a no for the pills. Many studies and reviews have shown that supplements don’t reduce the rate of onset of any diseases, and that high doses of antioxidants might even make things worse! So you’re definitely better off getting your antioxidants from fresh food than from supplements.

But what does that mean for these antioxidant-rich “super foods” such as green tea and blueberries? Well it sounds like they’d be a great way to ensure you get enough antioxidants, so long as you keep your sources varied enough to get a range of different types.

But while these fresh fruit and vegetables are a great way to keep your antioxidant levels high enough, you might want to be wary of some antioxidant-rich “healthy snacks” which have been cropping up recently. You should be able to get enough antioxidants from your normal diet, and many of these snacks and drinks have a heap of sugar and other ingredients chucked in, potentially outweighing any antioxidative benefits you’d get. They’re also often more costly than just buying fresh fruit and vegetables.

The antioxidants sound healthy, but how about the chocolate and peanut butter? Perhaps not so much. Image credit: theimpulsivebuy via flickr.

So what should we do if we want to look after ourselves? Well – boring as it sounds – it seems that it’d be best for your health (and your bank balance) to just eat a healthy diet and put your phone down at night.