Nutritional therapist Henrietta Norton explores the bodyhealing and youth-boosting strength of antioxidants
Every minute of every day our body breaks down, absorbs and distributes nutrients – this is essential for our survival. However, this process, albeit natural, also causes some damage – free radical (or oxidative) damage – but antioxidants can help to fight back. Free radical damage is caused by a process using oxygen, called oxidation. It is the same process that turns butter rancid and metal to rust. In humans, oxidation is an essential part of normal metabolism, but it is also caused by environmental factors. These include exposure to the sun’s rays pollution, smoking and a poor diet, and all can speed up the process of oxidation and the development of free radical damage, if left unchecked (this has been blamed for many conditions, including premature ageing).
Your body has a sophisticated method of keeping this oxidation in check, however. A group of nutrients called antioxidants swoop around the body soaking up and destroying any free radical molecules before they can cause any damage. Thankfully, antioxidants can be found in abundance if we eat a nutritious wholefood diet.
Vitamins A, C and E are a very important group of nutrients called carotenoids. These are the chemicals that give fruit and vegetables their rich colour – for example, orange and yellow colours found in squashes and carrots are from the carotenoid beta carotene. Beta carotene is converted into an active form of vitamin A, known as retinol.
Lycopene is also a strong antioxidant and gives tomatoes their wonderful red colour. Lycopene has been shown to be especially effective at repairing skin damage, as well as supporting the prostate.
Lutein and zeanthinin are also types of carotenoid and have received a lot of positive research recently. They demonstrate health-promoting benefits for the eyes and for strengthening the immune defence mechanisms. While these carotenoids both have yellow pigments, they are found concentrated in foods of other colours, notably leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach) and also eggs, courgettes, corn and peas.
Flavanoids are another important group of antioxidants found in red wine and tea. Epidemiologists suggest that the reduced rates of heart disease in France may be due to the regular and moderated intake of red wine. These flavanoids are thought to protect the genetic material, or DNA, from free radical damage. Damage to DNA contributes to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and advanced cognitive decline. Green tea contains the highest amount of flavanoids of all tea varieties and exerts many health benefits, including repairing skin damage and reducing some cancer risk.
Alpha lipoic acid is the only antioxidant that can easily interchange between the blood stream and the brain, and has been noted as being important in the prevention of a stroke for those at risk. A similar antioxidant called acteyl l carnitine can delay the onset of age-related cognitive decline. In a study conducted with mild age-related cognitive decline, significant improvements to memory, mood and stress response were seen in those that had been given acetyl l carnitine.
Recent research has shown that antioxidants must work together to prevent free radical damage. For example, when vitamin E has been neutralised it then becomes a very weak version of a free radical itself. However, if it is taken in combination with vitamin C, the vitamin C will ‘recycle’ it so that vitamin E becomes an active antioxidant once again. Antioxidants also need other team players in the nutrient group, such as zinc, magnesium, copper and manganese, to do their job optimally. Researchers have in fact found that a combination of vitamin C, E, beta carotene and zinc slows down the progression of age-related macular degeneration by 25 per cent.
You cannot stop the process of oxidation, but you can limit the amount of degenerative damage that occurs as a result of it. Remember to keep up the variety of colour in fruits and vegetables to get a cross section of these wonderful health promoting nutrients or, if taking a supplement is the most practical solution, take a Food-Grown formula for a more natural option.
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