With the widespread interest in diets and the variety of healthy eating options, more and more people are discovering dietary buzzwords such as antioxidants. Teas, drinks, and supplements apparently contain these compounds, and keto, gluten-free, and traditional weight-loss diets all urge adherents to consume foods high in antioxidants. But what are they, and are they as essential as we're led to believe?
Antioxidants are a family of compounds that prevent oxidation in the body. There are both naturally occurring antioxidants and man-made ones. Fruits and vegetables are rich in these compounds, and many supplements contain them. However, like many natural and synthetic products, nutritional experts generally consider the former preferable. Naturally occurring antioxidants do not appear to have negative side effects, while supplements can.
Antioxidants can slow cell damage, which, in turn, slows the onset and can even help prevent Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, cancer, Parkinson's disease, cardiovascular diseases, and more. They can also slow some of the effects of aging, such as eye degeneration. Each antioxidant has a different effect on overall health. Studies show that a combination is more effective in preventing and fighting disease than one single type of antioxidant.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant found in citrus fruits, pineapple, mango, papaya, and strawberries. It also occurs in red peppers, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. Oxidation in the body may be a contributing factor to the development of multiple diseases, and vitamin C delays this cell damage and regenerates other antioxidants, including vitamin E. The vitamin plays an essential role in the creation of collagen, which helps keep skin youthful, and tissue regeneration, which helps wounds heal quickly.
Vitamin E is prevalent in nuts, seeds, and oils. In one study on mice, it was shown to prevent oxidative stress on the skin. This stress is typical of environmental damage over time as antioxidant levels decline with age. Another study with veterans with Alzheimer's disease shows vitamin E significantly slowed the progression of the disease. Vitamin E is also a useful topical treatment, soothing eczema, reducing acne, and helping fade scars.
Beta-carotene is a pigment and antioxidant and part of the class of carotenoids, most of which are antioxidants with significant health benefits. The compound is found in yellow, orange, and leafy green vegetables. It helps the body create vitamin A, and doctors often prescribe it to individuals with vitamin deficiencies to help increase production. In men deficient in beta-carotene, increased consumption may lower the risk of prostate cancer.
Antioxidants can help prevent disease and aging because of their relationship to free radicals, harmful molecules that occur both naturally in the body and are absorbed from the environment. These molecules cause oxidation or oxidative stress, which damages cells and is associated with a wide range of diseases. Antioxidants fight free radicals and can help prevent the damage they cause.
Many antioxidants help prevent inflammation, which is often caused by diseases that develop due to oxidation. Autoimmune and eye diseases, diabetes, and a plethora of gut conditions all cause inflammation. Flavonoids, phenolic compounds, and carotenoids are all shown to decrease inflammation and risk of inflammation in their battle against free radicals.
Antioxidants cannot cure cancer, despite many claims. However, moderate intake of antioxidants in their natural forms may help prevent many types of cancer. Studies show the compounds are important for maintaining immune homeostasis and avoiding the detrimental side effects of cancer therapy, such as weight loss and loss of appetite.
Free radicals have a damaging effect on cardiovascular health, and antioxidants such as beta carotene, lycopene, quercetin, and vitamins C and E have positive preventative and treatment effects on cardiovascular diseases. Since the benefits of antioxidant supplements are still in question, the best way to obtain these compounds by eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and nuts.
The effects of antioxidants like vitamin E on collagen production are clear, and many also have a positive effect on age-related eye diseases and vision deterioration. One large clinical trial conducted by the National Eye Institute shows that antioxidant supplements can reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration by 25%. Another study shows the downside of these supplements, however, revealing that beta carotene in supplemental form could increase the risk of cancer in smokers. Thus, experts agree on the superiority of naturally-occurring antioxidants.
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