Caitlin Bailey, M.Ed., LPC
When we think of hip, trendy, health buzzwords of the past decade, “antioxidant” usually always makes the list. While many people know we need antioxidants, if you ask the average person what an oxidant is, they have no idea, they just know they’re very anti-them. The food and drug industry took note and took advantage of this opportunity to market products to consumers. “Contains Antioxidants!” became a staple label on almost every packaged food in the grocery store. Products were marketed to children and adults as “healthy” because they contained antioxidants.
So what actually is an antioxidant? Do we really need them in our body? Let me clarify this process and help sift through some of the confusion. Oxidation is a process that happens every day within our body. Breaking down food, medicines, sugars, and other digestive processes are all examples of oxidation. Oxidation is nothing more than a chemical reaction, but sometimes, the process of oxidation leaves behind solo-oxidants aka “free-radicals,” or unpaired electrons that are out of balance. In basic chemistry, electrons need to work in pairs, so when an electron is on its own, it’s very disoriented. These lonely electrons (aka free-radicals) do not like the feeling of being out of balance, so they steal what they need (another electron) from other healthy cells, which then perpetuates the cycle and leaves all cells stealing from each other.
Why is this important? Free-radicals have been linked to causing cancer, heart disease, and other serious diseases. Free-radicals are found floating around in things like cigarettes, alcohol, air pollution, gasoline, and pesticides, but remember, they’re also found in our own bodies through the process of digestion. Free-radicals are constantly scanning their environment, looking for another electron steal! So, here’s where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants stabilize free radicals by voluntarily giving away their own electrons for free. So by giving our body antioxidants, we are basically helping to neutralize the free-radical stealing process.
So, when you hear things like “Red wine protects against cancer!,” here is the true logic behind that statement: Wine is made from grapes —> grapes and berries have a high concentration of antioxidants —> antioxidants reduce free-radicals —> free-radicals sometimes cause cancer, so technically, red wine can help protect against cancer by getting rid of the free-radicals. Now that we know antioxidants are in fact important and necessary to promote optimum health, how do we get them? Antioxidants are found all over the place, but in their best form, they are only found in whole, natural foods. Foods with elevated antioxidant levels include but are not limited to: Blueberries, kidney beans, pinto beans, cranberries, artichokes, blackberries, prunes, raspberries, strawberries, apples, pecans, cherries, and plums.