Antioxidants, mostly found in plant foods, help neutralise damage caused by free radicals in our bodies. Know the antioxidant benefits, their types, sources, and risk factors.

The healthy food we eat contains essential nutrients, which are substances the body requires to perform various functions. Since the body cannot produce these nutrients on its own, they must be obtained through our diet to provide energy, support growth, and development, and regulate basic bodily functions. One crucial group of nutrients is antioxidants. Antioxidants are vital for protecting cells from damage caused by free radicals (unstable atoms that can damage cells). Eating more antioxidant-rich foods can reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. Here you will learn about the benefits of antioxidants and everything else you should know about them.

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are molecules that protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules produced during normal cell metabolism (chemical change in cells) or exposure to environmental stressors like pollution and UV (ultraviolet) radiation. While they are not completely harmful as they help cells talk and the body defend against infection, too many free radicals can cause oxidative stress. This can lead to cellular damage and contribute to various diseases, including cancer and heart disease.

According to the Pharmacognosy Review, antioxidants neutralise free radicals by donating electrons, preventing them from damaging cells. Common antioxidants include vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and selenium, which can help delay and inhibit cellular damage.

What are the benefits of antioxidants?

Antioxidants are crucial for maintaining health and preventing disease. Here are 7 key antioxidant benefits:

1. Protects against chronic diseases

The International Journal of Biomedical Science shows that antioxidants help neutralise free radicals, reducing oxidative stress, which is linked to chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. By preventing cell damage, antioxidants contribute to lower disease risk and better long-term health.

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heart health
Heart health can be improved with antioxidant-rich foods. Image courtesy: Freepik

2. Boosts immunity

“Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E strengthen the immune system by protecting immune cells from oxidative damage,” says Dietitian and Nutritionist Deepika Jayaswal. This helps the body fight infections more effectively and recover faster from illnesses.

3. Good for skin health

Antioxidants such as vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene help protect the skin from damage caused by UV radiation and pollution. A study published by the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found that antioxidants play a role in preventing and repairing skin damage caused by free radicals. They can reduce signs of ageing, such as wrinkles and age spots, by promoting collagen production and repairing damaged skin cells.

To learn how antioxidants can improve hair health, click here.

4. Improves vision

Antioxidants such as lutein and zeaxanthin are vital for eye health. They protect the eyes from damage caused by free radicals and reduce the risk of age-related eye health problems such as macular degeneration and cataracts.

5. Promotes brain health

“Antioxidants protect brain cells from oxidative stress, which is linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” explains Jayaswal. Antioxidants can improve cognitive function, memory, and overall brain health by reducing inflammation and promoting brain health.

6. Reduces inflammation

Many sources of antioxidants contain anti-inflammatory properties. By reducing inflammation, antioxidants help manage conditions such as arthritis and reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases.

7. Beneficial for heart health

The World Journal of Cardiology reveals that a low intake of antioxidants, particularly of vitamins, is associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease (CVD). Jayaswal suggests, “Antioxidants such as flavonoids and polyphenols improve heart health by protecting against oxidative stress that can damage blood vessels.” They help lower blood pressure, reduce bad cholesterol levels, and improve overall cardiovascular function.

Types of antioxidants

Antioxidants are classified into several types, each playing a crucial role in protecting the body from oxidative damage. Here are 5 primary types of antioxidants:

1. Vitamins

Vitamin C: Also known as ascorbic acid, this water-soluble vitamin is found in citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, and broccoli. It helps neutralise free radicals in the water-based parts of the body.

Vitamin C
Enjoy the benefits of antioxidants with vitamin C-rich foods. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Vitamin E: This fat-soluble vitamin, found in nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables, protects cell membranes from oxidative damage by scavenging lipid-soluble free radicals.

2. Carotenoids

Beta-carotene: It converts into vitamin A in the body and is found in carrots, sweet potatoes, and spinach. It is particularly effective in quenching singlet oxygen, a type of highly reactive free radical.

Lycopene: Present in tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit, lycopene is known for its potent ability to neutralise free radicals, especially those related to sun damage.

3. Minerals (Selenium)

This trace mineral, found in Brazil nuts, seafood, and whole grains, is a component of antioxidant enzymes such as glutathione peroxidase, which help detoxify harmful substances in the body.

4. Flavonoids

Found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, tea, and wine, flavonoids (such as quercetin, catechins, and anthocyanins) have strong antioxidant properties that help protect against cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers.

5. Polyphenols

Abundant in fruits, vegetables, coffee, and dark chocolate, polyphenols (like resveratrol and ellagic acid) are known for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. They can contribute to preventing heart disease and cancer risk

Each type of antioxidant works differently, targeting various free radicals and protecting different parts of the body. So, make sure your diet is packed with all these types of antioxidants.

Antioxidant-rich foods

Consuming a diet rich in antioxidants is beneficial for maintaining overall health and reducing the risk of chronic diseases. Here are some antioxidant-rich foods:

-Berries such as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries
-Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and grapefruits
-Grapes (red and purple grapes)
-Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard
-Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower
-Other veggies such as carrots, beans (black beans and kidney beans) and sweet potatoes
-Nuts like walnuts and almonds
-Chia seeds
-Beverages like green tea and coffee
-Dark chocolate

Antioxidants supplements

Antioxidant supplements can be effective, but their benefits vary. While they may help fill nutritional gaps, the US Food And Drug Administration does not support the effectiveness of supplements in preventing chronic diseases.

In fact, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, high doses of supplements like vitamins C and E may not provide the same benefits as antioxidants from whole foods and could potentially be harmful. Therefore, it is generally recommended to obtain antioxidants primarily from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains rather than relying on supplements.

Woman holding supplements
Supplements may not offer the same benefits. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

What are the risks of antioxidants?

While antioxidants are generally beneficial, excessive intake through supplements can pose risks. High doses of antioxidant supplements, such as vitamins A, C, and E, may lead to negative health effects, including an increased risk of certain cancers and cardiovascular diseases. Overconsumption can also interfere with the body’s natural oxidative processes, potentially impairing immune function and reducing the efficacy of certain medications. It is important to balance antioxidant intake and prioritise obtaining them from natural food sources rather than high-dose supplements to minimise these risks.

If you are on any medication, consult with your doctor before incorporating any supplement into your diet!

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