Antioxidants...why We Need Them, What They Do.

Natural Antioxidants should be the first line of defense in our battle with oxidative stress.  "Natural" means that the particular substance occurs naturally in nature.   

However, the form in which it is consumed can range from eating the raw fruit or vegetables that created it or taking an extract of the host plant such as grape seed extract or green tea extract.

If consumed in supplement pill or capsule form, "natural" means that the formulation was created from real plants, preferably hydroponically grown where the nutrients fed to the plants can be tightly controlled.  

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Moving on, simply stated, we need these substances in order to take care of the free radicals in our bodies.  It's a dangerous world we live in, environmentally speaking.  We have ultra-violet rays, toxins in our water, and hazardous chemicals in our homes, yards, garages and all kinds of pollutants in the air we breathe.

All of which, and more, tend to wreak havoc with our cells, or at least the oxygen molecules in our cells.  That's where the "oxidation" comes in. 

A free radical, besides being an anarchist that's still on the loose, is an atom, molecule or ion with unpaired electrons or an otherwise open shell configuration. These unpaired electrons are highly reactive and can result in chain reaction damage to other molecules.

It's easier to understand than the definition would suggest.  Consider an oxygen atom.  It has eight protons in its nucleus so we say it has an atomic number of eight.  Eight protons are what make it oxygen. 

In its stable state, it has eight electrons, two of which are in its inner shell and six in its outer shell.  Think of electron shells as orbits.  The eight positively charged protons and the eight negatively charged electrons give it a neutral charge.

When something like one of the toxins mentioned above, comes along and knocks one of those electrons out of the oxygen atoms outer orbit, a free radical has just been created. 

Remember, we said it was an atom, molecule or ion with an unpaired electron or open shell configuration.  The loss of that outer shell electron means that the oxygen atom now has a positive charge and it wants to react with another atom to regain its neutral charge. 

Thus the stage is set for a string of free radical interactions, cell damage and potential mutations.

If that is a bit too much atomic theory, then watch the video below for a demonstration of free radicals at the breakfast table.

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Oxidation and Anti-oxidation

Oxidation and the production of free radicals happen in our bodies everyday and normally our immune system and natural antioxidants in our food, such as vitamin C and E, take care of them. 

Our bodies, in fact all organisms, contain an array of natural antioxidants and enzymes to prevent oxidative damage to critical structures such as DNA, proteins and other cellular components that could cause us real harm if damaged.  

The objective is not to eliminate all free radicals in that, within limits, they are necessary to perform the role of chemical messengers in living organisms, such as ourselves. 

Over doing it on either natural antioxidants or synthetic could impair the cellular signaling mechanism in our body and open the door to a host of other problems.</p>

There are many good books dealing with antioxidants but two of the most recommended are:

These are both available from and can be purchased by clicking the book covers to the left and right. 

Of course, once you are at the site you can browse for other books on antioxidants that may be more appealing to your taste.
The problem is that in today's toxic world, our immune system is rarely working at peak efficiency and not many of us get adequate nutrition from our normal diets.

Three Outcomes; None Good

In simple terms, when a free radical is created in the body and the immune system is not functioning optimally, three things can occur.

If the free radical attacks, that is, reacts with a cell membrane, allergies can occur.

If it reacts with a fat globule that nourishes the cell, the cell dies. This is associated with annoying things like aging and rheumatoid arthritis.

If the free radical attacks the nucleus of the cell, which carries the cell's DNA, we have a mutation and upon reproduction, cancer can develop.

To summarize, a weak immune system combined with a deficiency in nutrients that absorb free radicals are the primary causes of illness.

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How Are Free Radicals Eliminated?

Oxidation was described above and it is oxygen radical absorbing nutrients that block the process of oxidation by sponging up free radicals.

By doing this, the antioxidant nutrients themselves become oxidized which is why we need to be continuously replenishing these nutrients in our bodies.

In real graphic terms, you know the movie scene where an enemy grenade plops down in the middle of a group of soldiers and one of them throws his body on it and absorbs the blast thus saving his comrades.  The soldier that sacrificed himself for his buddies was like an antioxidant in our body.

Free radical absorbing nutrients benefit us in a couple of ways.  Above we alluded to a chain reaction in which a free radical reacts with another atom by stealing one of its electrons. 

The theft results in the creation of a second free radical which reacts with another atom or molecule, creating a third free radical and on and on, creating more and more unstable atoms.

The interactions will continue until something stops it; something applies the brakes. The brake will be an substance or chemical that breaks the chain reaction.  It is possible that instead of applying the brakes, the reaction just runs out of gas on its own and decays to a non-reactive entity. 

The first instance is pro-active, the latter is leaving it to chance and hoping we won't end up with the seed of a tumor.  The antioxidant brakes could be vitamin C, E, beta carotene, or any number of phytonutrients.

There are also antioxidant enzymes with big names like superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione peroxidase that prevent oxidation by slowing down the onset of those chain reactions. 

These enzymes work by scavenging free radicals that would otherwise start a reaction sequence.  This is a preventative measure in that the antioxidant can stop an oxidation chain reaction before it ever starts.

The effectiveness of a specific antioxidant depends on the type of free radical involved, how and where it is generated, and the location and extent of the damage caused. 

So in one instance, an antioxidant may protect against 
free radicals but in another set of circumstances, have no effect at all.  Worse, in certain circumstances, an antioxidant, or its overuse, could even act as a catalyst to generate the reactive oxygen atom or molecule.

Life Requires Oxygen...
thus we have Reactive Oxygen Species

From the term "oxidation", we might get the idea that it has something to do with oxygen and we would be right.  If we didn't have to breathe in oxygen, we wouldn't have to be concerned with free radicals and nutrients to get rid of them, after all we would be dead and the dead have no worries.

Oxygen happens to be highly reactive and causes damage to us by producing reactive oxygen species (ROS) which will be covered in the next page due to its scope and complexity.

For now, let’s just say that there are several different types of reactive oxygen species and no one antioxidant can take care of every type although there are some natural antioxidants that come close.  

ROS are formed by the normal metabolism of oxygen and, as alluded to earlier, we need them to perform the signaling function within the body and maintain balance or homeostasis. 

Under various adverse conditions such as stress, exposure to environmental toxins, fatigue and several others, these various types of free radicals can increase dramatically.   Then we can have a variety of problems, all lumped under the term "oxidative stress", and then we need to address those problems.

Types of Free Radical Absorbing Nutrients

It's not really hard at all to get a good, quality intake of these protective nutrients if we know what to look for, they're 

Basically, some vitamins have antioxidant capabilities, as do some of the trace minerals and a whole host of phytonutrients have oxygen radical absorbing properties.

Turmeric powder

Dr. Joseph Mercola, who publishes a great newsletter on a wide variety of health issues, recently did a whole, long treatise on the antioxidant capabilities of a spice...turmeric. 

He believes it to be the best of the best in antioxidants; and he may be right. 

Turmeric is an East Indian spice that contains curcumin, which in turn is a phytonutrient phenol.

Organic Turmeric Root Powder - $10.83
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Turmeric Root Capsules - $11.17
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He lists thirteen benefits that 100% organic turmeric (not the stuff found in your supermarket spice section) provides:

  • Enhances protection against free radicals
  • Helps promote healthy skin
  • Supports overall eye health
  • Provides immune system support
  • Aids skeletal system and joint health
  • Encourages healthy liver function
  • Helps maintain healthy cells with support against free radicals
  • Balances digestive system health
  • Supports healthy blood and circulatory system
  • Helps maintain normal cholesterol levels
  • Supports adverse reactions to stress
  • Promotes a healthy female reproductive system
  • Helps maintain already healthy blood sugar levels
  • This list was included here to illustrate that the benefits of these substances go far beyond neutralizing free radicals although it is through the minimizing of free radicals that the collateral benefits are realized.


    Since each of the vitamins, trace minerals and phytonutrients are unique in their chemical structure, it follows that each will have a different mechanism as to its antioxidant function in our bodies.

    Touching on two of the main radical fighting vitamins, first we have vitamin E which is actually a catch-all generic term.  It is used to refer to eight chemical compounds that have vitamin E activity, collectively known as tocopherols.

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    Alpha-tocopherol is the most widely available and has the strongest effect on the body.  It is fat-soluble which gives it the ability to protect cell membranes from free radical damage.  It was mentioned above that cell membranes are mostly fatty acids and if they are attacked by free radicals, cell death can result.

    Next is vitamin C (ascorbic acid) which is a water-soluble vitamin as opposed to the fat soluble vitamin E.  Being water soluble, it can neutralize free radicals found in a watery environment, such as the interior of cells. Vitamin C and vitamin E work together to rid the body of free radicals.


    In addition to curcumin (turmeric), mentioned above, another important antioxidant phytonutrient is the carotenoid, Beta-Carotene.  This is a water-soluble nutrient and is the most widely studied of the 600 carotenoids identified to date.  Beta carotene is believed to be the most effective carotenoid in protecting against certain energized forms of oxygen that are particularly toxic to cells. 

    Trace Minerals

    Trace minerals are not antioxidants in themselves but are needed for the production of certain antioxidant enzymes.

    Selenium is a trace mineral that we need to consume in only very small quantities, but without which we could not survive. It forms the active site of several antioxidant enzymes including glutathione peroxidase.

    Also the trace minerals manganese and zinc form an essential part of various antioxidant enzymes.

    Antioxidant Enzymes

    Three antioxidant enzymes that comprise the main line of defense against free radicals were briefly mentioned above.  They are superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT) and glutathione peroxidase (GPx).

    pHion is the category leader when it pertains to pH balancing of the body.

    Superoxide dismutase neutralizes a positively charged oxygen atom by adding an electron to its outer shell thus completing its full complement of eight electrons and restoring its neutral charge.  The end products of this contributed electron are hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and oxygen (O2). 
    Step two occurs with Catalase and glutathione peroxidase working simultaneously with the protein glutathione to convert (or reduce) the hydrogen peroxide to water. 

    Then there is a step three where the oxidized glutathione from step two is acted on by another antioxidant enzyme, glutathione reductase and finally balance is restored.

    Their are several products on the market that claim to support cellular health by direct supplementation of glutathione but unfortunately it doesn't work that way. 

    The glutathione molecure is too large to be directly absorbed in the digestive tract thus an effective supplement will supply the building blocks of glutathione which can be absorbed and put to use. 

    So far, the best product we have found for supporting glutathione levels is described at Glutathione Support.

    What this action does is to repair oxidized DNA, degrade oxidized protein, and destroy oxidized lipids (fat cells).  That was just one example. 

    There are various other enzymes that act as a secondary antioxidant defense mechanism to protect us from further damage.  Wow, could all that just be the product of accidental evolution?

    Other Anti-Oxidation Nutrients

    Besides the enzymes, vitamins, and trace minerals mentioned previously, there are many other nutrients and compounds that appear to have antioxidant properties.

    Among them is coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10, or ubiquinone), which is essential to energy production and can also protect the body from destructive free radicals.

    Also, uric acid, a product of DNA metabolism, has become increasingly recognized as an important factor in ridding ourselves of free radicals.

    ORAC: Free Radical Absorption Capability

    ORAC is a method of measuring and comparing the ability of anti-oxidants to squelch free radicals. 

    It stands for "Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity" and the determination of a substances value as an antioxidant is a laboratory procedure in vitro, which is, done in a test tube or Petri dish. 

    Numerous natural anti-oxidants in whole foods have been tested for their ORAC values and the findings are what have been suspected all along; that colorful berries, some spices and beans rate highly. 

    None approach the high value of raw unprocessed cacao which comes in at a whopping 28,000 units.  

    Raw Organic Cacao - Beans, Nibs, Powder & Butter

    In comparison, blueberries are a little over 9000 and strawberries about 6000.  The beans (kidney and pinto beans) beat out the berries testing at 13,000 and 12,000 respectively.

    Since ORAC testing works well in the lab but not so well in a real, living human body, there is no cut-and-dried clinical proof that natural anti-oxidants actually bestow the health benefits presumed by the lab testing. 

    It doesn't mean that the fruits, beans or dark chocolates don't help us get rid of free radicals; it just means that there is not sufficient proof to satisfy the FDA. 

    The upshot is that it is illegal for the labels of high ORAC foods to claim anti-oxidant health benefits although it seems that some food companies do it anyway.  Nevertheless, let's not be deterred from eating our natural anti-oxidants from wholesome fresh fruit and vegetables or even as supplements made from their extracts.

    Sources of Anti-Oxidant Nutrients

    Vitamin E is found in walnuts, peanuts, almonds, seeds, olives, avocado, wheat germ, liver, and leafy green vegetables.

    For good sources of vitamin C, look to citrus fruits (like oranges and grapefruit), broccoli, leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cantaloupe, and strawberries.  Watch out for interactions with the grapefruit if you are taking certain prescription drugs.

    Carotene, the orange color in carrots

    Common sources of beta-carotene include cantaloupe, mangoes, papaya, pumpkin, peppers, spinach, kale, squash, sweet potatoes and apricots.

    Selenium is found in seafood, beef, pork, chicken, Brazil nuts, brown rice, and whole wheat bread.

    Phytochemicals are found in a variety of sources. Some phytochemicals that are currently under study for their free radical absorbing capacity and ability to reduce the risk of disease are:

  • Allyl sulfides - Onions, garlic, leeks, chives
  • Carotenoids - Tomatoes, carrots, watermelon, kale, spinach
  • Curcumin - Turmeric
  • Flavonoids - Grapes, berries, cherries, apples, grapefruit
  • Glutathione - Green leafy vegetables
  • Indoles - Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts,
  • Isoflavones - Legumes (peas, soybeans)
  • Isothiocyanates - Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts
  • Lignans - Seeds (flax seeds, sunflower seeds)
  • Terpenes - Citrus fruit peels, cherries, nuts
  • Phytic acid - Whole grains, legumes
  • Phenols - Grapes, blueberries, strawberries, cherries, grapefruit, tea
  • Saponins - Beans, legumes
  • Several berries were mentioned in the list above but lets not forget the Goji berry.  Goji berries are eaten raw, cooked, or dried (like raisins) and are used in herbal teas, juices, wines, and medicines.

    Like many berries, Goji berries are filled with powerful antioxidants and other compounds including compounds rich in vitamin A.

    Real, organic, non-commercially grown food is always the best source for nutrients but in most locales and most of the time those are hard to come by.

    Organic products are expensive although well worth it.  Small truck garden produce is available seasonally at local farmers markets but not usually in the volumes needed to sustain urban communities.  The good news is that the "organic" movement is growing rapidly with many retail grocery stores featuring true organic food; think the likes of The Fresh Market or Whole Foods Market. 

    Large corporate farmed produce is plentiful but sorely lacking in harvesting, preservatives, heat processing, chemical pesticides and fertilizers all tend to degrade the nutritional content of food. 

    <p>Obviously all this is pointing us toward supplementation.  Today it is mandatory for optimal health especially in the 
    area of getting rid of free radicals.

    To Supplement or not to Supplement,
    That is the Question

    Nothing is Certain; well, except
    Death and Taxes

    Expanding on the above paragraph, depending on which sources one looks at, there is a great deal of disagreement on the benefit of supplementation of antioxidants, whether natural antioxidants or something cooked up in the lab. 

    There are a few clinical trials that concluded that antioxidant supplementation had no effect whatsoever on health; others conclude that it is not only useless but harmful.  

    Others in the world of natural health practitioners point to studies that do indicate health benefits of antioxidant supplementation.

    One has to be very discerning in looking at some of these clinical trials.  For example, one should look at who performed the study and where the funding came from. Did the researchers have ties to the pharmaceutical industry or big agriculture or big food processors?

    The type of anti-oxidant supplement that was used is very important; for example, was it from whole food sourced natural antioxidants or was it an antioxidant isolated from its source without the accompanying cofactors?  

    The scope of the study is important.  Was it a very narrow study focused on one disease such as mountain fever or was it a meta study where the conclusion was drawn from a broad examination of other studies and literature?

    No Level Playing Field Here

    Here's one possible scenario.   The pharmaceutical industry is very willing to fund trials that are likely to discredit dietary supplements.

    On the other hand, supplement manufacturers are very hesitant to lay out millions of dollars to perform trials since they would not be able to patent natural anti-oxidants and rake in billions of dollars on sales as the drug companies do. 

    What good would it be for a supplement maker’s bottom line if they did the trials, proved that it had the power to cure a disease, got it through the FDA approval process and couldn't protect their investment with a patent?

    It is a wise person that knows to look at who conducted a study or issued a report and see if they have conflicts of interest. 

    For example, the results of a clinical study on psychotherapeutic drugs for ADD, ADHD, anxiety and depression was issued and it showed no ill effects, no interactions, no side effects and great results. 

    Upon examination, we find that it was the manufacturer that did the study and former executives of the drug company were on the FDA review board, might we think that conflicts of interests may have shaped the outcome?

    A separate page provides more information on the reactive oxygen species, or various classes of free radicals mentioned above.

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