What are the Most Important Antioxidants? Hint: Look Within Yourself.
Vitamin C. Vitamin E. Matcha tea. Berries. These are some of the most common antioxidant nutrients and foods. But did you know you have antioxidants within your body? And every second of every day of your life, these so-called endogenous (internal) antioxidants fight the good fight, neutralizing the one thing that causes both disease and premature-aging: free radicals.
In this post, we’ll key in on a couple of the most important internal antioxidants. You’ll also discover which foods spring them into free-radical-killing action.
But before identifying your internal antioxidants, let’s take a closer look at what antioxidants actually do.
Antioxidants: In Case You Fell Asleep During Chemistry Class, A Brief Lesson
The term “chemical” often has a bad connotation. That’s because there are tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals in our food, furniture, appliances, etc. But antioxidants are actually chemicals. In fact, they are more chemical than they are a nutrient.
And here’s why.
The reason free radicals can cause irreparable harm to cells requires a mini crash course in chemistry. Free radicals rob healthy cells of electrons in order to have a full outer shell of electrons. Now, before you start nodding off, here’s why this is important.
If you’re not eating several servings of organic, fresh fruit and vegetables each and every day, and on top of that, you’re also drinking alcohol, eating more sugar than you should, and not exercising enough, your internal antioxidants can become overwhelmed. Free radicals steal electrons from healthy cells, because they themselves are chemically unstable. In stealing electrons from otherwise stable molecules, they cause serious damage.
The internal antioxidants you have come to the rescue by donating electrons to free radicals. In doing this, they render free radicals as harmless as a litter of golden retriever pups.
Antioxidants in Foods & Supplements Benefit Internal Antioxidants
Ever wonder why some people hardly ever get sick, despite not eating very healthy and exercising little? Certainly, genetics plays a big role in their good fortune. And perhaps these genetic flukes, should count their lucky stars that their internal antioxidants are as fit as Olympic athletes.
But for most of us who are bound by the basic precepts of health, what you eat dramatically influences how robust your internal antioxidants will perform in the fight against free radicals.
You see, when you eat, say, a handful of blueberries, the antioxidant compounds (anthocyanins, which are a class of antioxidants called “flavonoids”) in the berries help fight disease. And a part of the reason why a diet rich in antioxidants is so important is because your internal antioxidants don’t have to work as hard. In fact, a diet rich in low-starch vegetables and low-sugar fruits helps your internal antioxidants essentially regenerate or recycle themselves, so they can fight harder against free radicals.
Free radicals constantly bombard us. That’s why every day, we should eat a diet that’s at least 85% to 90% composed of organic, whole foods (mostly plant-based). Free radicals aren’t entirely nefarious. We need free radicals to give our immune system something to do.
Without free radicals, our internal antioxidants would go haywire, and perhaps attack our immune systems. But because of how many pollutants there are in this modern world, not to mention viruses and harmful bacteria, we are at constant risk of being overwhelmed by free radical damage. That’s why we need to listen to mom’s advice and eat your veggies!
Meet Your Internal Antioxidants
There are at least a half-dozen endogenous antioxidants. A couple of the most important ones in terms of your immune system’s first line of defense are glutathione and superoxide dismutase (SOD).
Glutathione is often called “the master antioxidant of the body.” Composed of 3 amino acids (cysteine, glutamate, and glycine), glutathione, amongst many other functions, minimizes damage from the sun’s UV rays. It’s one of the only internal antioxidants made in the liver. The liver, as you may know, is the body’s primary detoxification organ. Glutathione plays a big role in getting rid of toxins, including heavy metals.
Low levels of glutathione are associated with several kinds of disease, including type 2 diabetes. Every cell in the human body contains glutathione. However, as you age, your body’s levels of this critical compound become depleted.
Eating lots of foods that contain sulfur may prevent glutathione depletion. Examples of sulfur-rich foods include:
- Bok choy
- Brussels sprouts
- Brazil nuts
- Raw sunflower seeds
“You Poor Old Sod,” You Need SOD
The other internal antioxidant that’s received much attention is superoxide dismutase (SOD).
Think of a SOD as your body’s vacuum cleaner. It’s an enzyme that’s the most powerful antioxidant in the human body, detoxifying what are known as “reactive oxygen species.” (ROS). Like free radicals, ROS can either be friend or foe, playing a role in homeostasis or causing disease. SOD is a natural antioxidant superhero because it helps break down oxygen molecules in cells.
Researchers speculate that the reason why it’s important to eat foods that are rich sources of SOD isn’t because of the enzyme itself. Rather, the foods high in SOD contain minerals and trace minerals that are co-factors in creating SOD internally.
Not surprisingly, cruciferous veggies such as broccoli and cauliflower contain the minerals needed to produce internal SOD. White matcha tea is also an excellent source of SOD, as is turmeric and black pepper, melons and sea vegetables (seaweed, kelp, etc.)
The next time you hear the phrase “antioxidants,” don’t just think of the usual suspects such as vitamin C. Look within yourself and don’t take for granted the internal antioxidants that work around the clock to keep you healthy. And give them a break by eating at least a couple pounds of fresh veggies a day. If that’s not possible because you’re too busy or you simply don’t like veggies all that much, invest in a high-quality superfood powder to fuel your internal antioxidants.