The Important Benefits of Antioxidants
Most of us have heard that free radicals -- the undesirable byproducts of various metabolic functions -- damage cells. Over time, this damage, called oxidative damage or oxidative stress, is believed to play a leading role in certain diseases and age-related changes. Free radical destruction is thought to be a contributing factor to the decline in memory and motor performance seen in aging. But what does this really mean? And how can we prevent cellular damage from free radicals?
If you could view the inside of your body at a molecular level, you would see free radicals and antioxidants engaged in an ongoing dance. With virtually every step you take, and every bite you eat, free radicals are generated. This is because free radicals are actually a result of normal metabolism and energy production. Other influences, like cigarette smoke, exercise, chemicals, sunlight, and cosmic and manmade radiation, also generate free radicals in your body. If they're allowed to overwhelm your system, they can and do result in age-related deterioration.
The good news is that there is something called antioxidants, and they are nature's way of defending your cells against attack by these free radicals, thereby helping you resist aging and disease. If you don't have adequate antioxidants to step in and combat free radicals, then oxidative stress tends to lead to accelerated tissue and organ damage. The brain may be particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of free radicals because it is relatively deficient in antioxidants to begin with. This is why getting antioxidants in your diet is so crucial to your health. And just as it's important to consume a wide range of vitamins and minerals because each plays a different, essential role in health, it is equally important to consume a variety of antioxidants as well. This is because each has a little something different to offer you.
Water-Soluble vs. Fat-Soluble Antioxidants
Antioxidants are often lumped together into one category in how they protect your cells from free radicals, but they are actually very different. For instance, certain antioxidants are water-soluble while others are fat-soluble. Why is this important? Because the interior of your cells and the fluid between them are composed mainly of water, whereas your cell membranes are made largely of fat. Free radicals can strike both the interior of your cells and the cell membrane, so you need to be sure you're consuming both water-soluble and fat-soluble antioxidants to protect you. If you consume only water-soluble antioxidants, such as anthocyanins, polyphenols or resveratrol, your cell membranes will still be vulnerable to free radical damage. Likewise, if you consume only fat-soluble antioxidants, such as astaxanthin and ubiquinol, the interior of your cells are still vulnerable. Consume them both, and you're giving your cells a far more comprehensive shield against free radical damage.
Marine Carotenoids for Your Optimal Health
When you hear carotenoid, you might automatically think of beta-carotene and carrots, and this is probably the most common, well-known member of the group. But there's much, much more to carotenoids than carrots! Specifically, marine carotenoids are among the most exciting substances in the antioxidant realm, and, as their name suggests, they come not from a garden patch but from the sea. Carotenoids are the compounds in your foods that give you that vibrant cornucopia of color—from green grasses to red beets, to the spectacular yellows and oranges of your bell peppers. They also exist in algae and seaweed and the marine and aquatic animals that consume these foods. There are two major marine carotenoids, astaxanthin and fucoxanthin. A new study on these marine carotenoids show that they have strong antioxidant properties, and possible anti-cancer effects. As researchers wrote in Marine Drugs, "Both these two carotenoids [astaxanthin and fucoxanthin] show strong antioxidant activity attributed to quenching singlet oxygen and scavenging free radicals. The potential role of these carotenoids as dietary antioxidants has been suggested to be one of the main mechanisms for their preventive effects against cancer and inflammatory diseases."
Astaxanthin: The Pigment That Makes Salmon Pink
Natural astaxanthin is produced only by the microalgae Haematoccous pluvialis when its water supply dries up, forcing it to protect itself from ultraviolet radiation. It's the algae's survival mechanism—astaxanthin serves as a "force field" to protect the algae from lack of nutrition and/or intense sunlight. There are only two main sources of natural astaxanthin—the microalgae that produce it, and the sea creatures that consume the algae, such as wild-caught (not farmed!) sockeye salmon, shellfish, and krill. Astaxanthin is fat-soluble and is FAR more potent than beta-carotene, alpha-tocopherol, lycopene and lutein, other members of its chemical family. It exhibits exceptionally powerful free radical scavenging activity and protects your cells, organs and body tissues from oxidative damage.
Astaxanthin's unique "antioxidative artillery" provides for an impressive array of health benefits, including improving cardiovascular health, stabilizing blood sugar, boosting your immune system, fighting cancer, reducing inflammation, improving eye health—and even helping protect you from sunburn. Most of astaxanthin's benefits come from its powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. New research suggests you could enjoy even MORE benefits by further increasing your astaxanthin, even if you are already taking a krill oil supplement that naturally contains astaxanthin. If you decide to give astaxanthin a try, I recommend starting with 2 mg per day. If you are on a krill oil supplement, take that into consideration; different krill products have different concentrations of astaxanthin, so check your label.
Fucoxanthin: A Powerful Antioxidant in Brown Seaweed
Fucoxanthin exists naturally in brown seaweed, a type of kelp. Fucoxanthin is found in brown seaweed, such as the kind used in traditional miso soup. It is not found in significant amounts in other kinds of edible seaweed, such as green or red seaweed, but you can find it in supplement form. Preliminary animal research performed in Russia and Japan suggests that fucoxanthin may help rev up your metabolism and burn fat. Although it's not fully understood how fucoxanthin works, it appears to target a protein called UCP1 that increases the rate at which belly fat is burned. Evidence is emerging showing that fucoxanthin is also a powerful antioxidant that can protect your cells from free radical damage, thereby helping to support your heart and a healthy immune response, as well as fight cancer.
Resveratrol Can Actually Help Regenerate a Damaged Heart
Scientists have found yet another positive property in another antioxidant, resveratrol, a chemical compound found in certain plants like grapes, blueberries and cranberries. In a study published in the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, scientists reported that cardiac stem cells treated with resveratrol in mice helped cardiac function that lasted several months, and improved heart cell regeneration. One of the serious complications of free radical damage is hardening and thickening of your arteries. There is a "vicious cycle" of free radicals, artery damage, and narrowing due to scar tissue, which, in turn, promotes more free radical activity and more damage.
Resveratrol's antioxidant action helps stop free radical damage and also opens your arteries by enhancing nitric oxide. It also stops the proliferation of cells in blood vessels that narrow your arteries and it keeps blood cells from sticking together. Both are very important for helping prevent heart attacks. As a water-soluble antioxidant, resveratrol deeply penetrates the center of your cell's nucleus, giving your DNA time to repair free radical damage.
Resveratrol is found in abundance in red wine, and it's highly soluble in alcohol, meaning your body may absorb more of it from red wine than from other sources. I do not, however, suggest drinking large amounts of red wine, since alcohol is a poison to your system. You can get some resveratrol by eating grapes (muscadine grapes have the highest concentration of resveratrol in nature because of their extra thick skins and numerous seeds where it is concentrated), cocoa, dark chocolate and peanuts, but it will likely be difficult to get a therapeutic dose, since you should only eat them in moderation. The other option is to take a resveratrol supplement, and in this case be sure to look for one made from a whole food complex.
Your body can manufacture certain antioxidants, but not others. And your body's natural antioxidant production tends to decline with age. Fortunately, most of the vegetables you eat are loaded with potent phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. The closer they are to being harvested, the more potent these antioxidants will be—which is why consuming plenty of raw, locally harvested, organic vegetables is one of the best ways to get antioxidants. Juicing is another convenient way to increase your intake, especially if you eat the pulp, or make smoothies using the whole organic fruit or vegetable.
There are many experts who believe that one of the main benefits of following a Paleo type diet is related to the enormous amount of antioxidants that were consumed by eating nearly half of our food as vegetables and fruits. Please note that these were NOT the cultivated fruits we consume today but are their wild ancestors, which are much closer to a blueberry today. They were much smaller than today's fruits and thus had a much larger proportion of their volume as skin and seeds, which is where most of the antioxidants are located. They are NOT located in the sweet part of the fruit that is loaded with fructose. Since most of the wild type fruits are not commercially available to us today, we need to be very careful about making sure we have a full complement of antioxidants that replicated our ancestors' dietary patterns. This means supplementation since we simply do not have access to these types of fruits today. Additionally, reducing your sugar and fructose intake will decrease your antioxidant stress so that you will need less, and the ones that you have will work better and last longer. So be sure to limit sugars, including fructose, and all processed foods in your diet.
The Journal of Neuroscience October 1998
Marine Drugs epub June 27, 2011
GreenMedInfo.com June 2011
Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine February 25, 2011