I hear a lot about antioxidants in terms of maintaining health and I agree that they are important. That being said, should you be taking extra in supplement form? Which types are best and when should they be taken?
During the normal process of metabolizing delicious food into useful energy our cells create what are called reactive oxygen species (ROS). These nasty molecules do not have enough electrons, they feel unbalanced (pure anthropomorphism here) and, like so often happens when something does not have enough, they take what they need. These ROS’ are unstable oxygen molecules and they are pure bullies within the cellular environment. They will literally take electrons from whatever is nearby. The sad fact is that when cells die, the inflammatory process creates more ROS. This is one of the driving forces behind inflammation creating disease! Hopefully, you can see that decreasing inflammation in the body is one of the best ways to need fewer antioxidants (and thus the need to take/eat them).
The idea behind taking antioxidants is that they have extra electrons. They are the sweet kid at the playground that invites other kids to play with their toys. If you have enough antioxidants in your body, those nasty ROS are balanced by the overly kind electron donors and no damage is done. However, if you do not have enough antioxidants, the ROS will steal electrons from cellular structures that need them (like your poor endoplasmic reticulum!).
So what, you say? I hear you and what it all boils down to is that you need to eat antioxidants. How much is determined by a myriad of factors including your diet, level of activity, water intake, overall stress on your body and genetics. One example is a diet high in fat. I know Keto diets are all the rage right now (sorry gallbladders, it will be over soon) but breaking down fat for energy creates more ROS than normal, meaning those people should be making sure to eat plenty of antioxidants. The picture gets a little more complicated when you consider that your body needs both WATER soluble and FAT soluble antioxidants, because as we all know water and fat do not mix!
So, what are the best antioxidants? Well for a start Vitamins A, C and E are some of the best. A and E are fat soluble and C is water soluble. However, the big daddy absolute best, possibly a silver bullet to health in some cases, antioxidant would have to be; Glutathione. Glutathione can be taken as itself or as its immediate precursor N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) and has been shown in many studies to reduce damage from ROS. Other good antioxidants include nutrients found in plant matter like lycopene (the red pigment in tomatoes), and beta-carotene (from carrots and squash). They can also be found in berries (blue, straw, rasp...etc) and many spices. Which means that the punchline is that a diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruits (not the other way around) is likely the best source of antioxidants.
There are plenty of cases when supplementation with additional antioxidants is useful, but that is a whole other kettle of fish to be covered in another post.
Wishing you all a happy holiday season!