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Antioxidants: What role do they play?

Antioxidants are in the news quite a lot. Anyone who follows the latest health information has read about or heard about antioxidants. For this reason, we tend to assume that everyone knows what antioxidants are and what they do. 

Probably the most common piece of information on antioxidants is that they fight cancer. Antioxidants are known to reduce our risk of cancer by eliminating dangerous chemicals in the body that cause cancer. But there is much more to antioxidants than this fact. 

Antioxidants are powerful and natural compounds that provide numerous benefits for our bodies. It is also widely understood that certain foods are rich in antioxidants. Vitamin C from fresh fruits is one of the food groups that make the news frequently. 

Yet, antioxidants are complex biochemical agents. There is an entire world of science behind antioxidants and how they benefit the body. What do we know about antioxidants? What are the many benefits of antioxidants? And how do we get the most out of antioxidants in our daily lives? This guide will give you the information you need to better understand the benefits of antioxidants and how to make the most of them.    

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are, in short, compounds that prevent or inhibit oxidation in the body. While oxidation is a natural part of biological functions, oxidation tends to create damage when it becomes too prevalent. 

Oxidation in the body, as the result of the presence of certain types of other chemicals from the diet, cause damage to cells by breaking down cellular walls. This type of cell damage can lead to further damage to cellular DNA, for example, and this can lead to changes in the cells that lead to cancer and other diseases. 

Primary examples of antioxidants include vitamins C and E. These are called carotenoids. They are specific kinds of antioxidants that prevent cell damage. 

Part of the process of breaking down nutrients is a chemical reaction like oxidation. In the course of normal metabolic processes, the body will, through oxidation, release what are called free radicals. These are a type of chemical that needs to bond with some other chemical and will literally break apart cell tissue to bond. Together, these types of chemicals are called Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). ROSs will react with proteins in cell ways and with the DNA in the cell nucleus. As a result, ROSs are the leading cause of a wide range of diseases including cancer. 

Antioxidants are the primary chemicals that can block these ROSs from breaking down cellular tissue and cellular DNA. The good news is that you can get all the antioxidants you need from the foods you eat.  

There are some important lifestyle and environmental factors that are known to cause excessive free radicals in the body. These include:

  • Air pollution
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Toxins
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Eating too many polyunsaturated fats
  • Too much iron, magnesium, copper, and zinc
  • Low oxygen to the body
  • Overly intense and prolonged exercise

The factors lead to an excess of free radicals in the body. By making sure you eat the right kinds of foods that contain antioxidants, you can ensure that there are enough antioxidants in your system to block these free radicals from doing damage. By relying on a diet that is rich in antioxidants, and by avoiding things like smoking and excessive alcohol, you can minimize the damage done by free radicals and significantly reduce your risk of cancer and other dangerous diseases. 

Getting antioxidants in your diet is quite easy. Many antioxidant-rich foods happen to be some of our favorites. Cocoa, for instance, is rich in antioxidants. Other great sources of antioxidants include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices. An additional benefit to many of these foods is that they are filled with healthy fiber and tend to reduce bad cholesterol. 

Antioxidants benefits

The benefits of antioxidants do not fit into a single list since the way antioxidants work affects the body in different ways. Since antioxidants provide benefits at the cellular level, benefits for one organ system are different than another. For example, free radicals provide benefits for proteins in ways that differ from the way they impact DNA.

All of this comes down to some basic chemistry. Free radicals are compounds that have at least one free electron. Since this electron needs to bond with another compound to share a proton, the free radical will strip away the chemical integrity of biological systems to bond. Free radicals literally interrupt cell tissue through its chemical makeup.   

Cell damage begins at the level of protein and DNA molecules and this is why the damage from free radicals can become so profound. By interrupting the structural integrity of the cell tissue, it causes these cells to become a danger to our bodies.

Antioxidants provide a free chemical site on which free radicals can bond and be safely eliminated from the body. By binding up the unpaired electron, free radicals are effectively converted into harmless elements that are either incorporated into our bodies or expelled through natural processes of elimination. The liver, for example, will remove these elements from the bloodstream, and this minimizes any potential damage. 

Free radicals that circulate have been linked to several common and fatal conditions. Free radicals are at least partially the cause of things like:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Declining brain function
  • Declining immune system. 

There are in fact over 50 diseases known to be linked to the presence of free radicals. You can easily prevent these diseases by making sure your diet includes foods that contain antioxidants. 

Types of antioxidants

Antioxidants come in two primary forms. Water-soluble antioxidants perform their work on the outside of cells. Fat-soluble antioxidants work on the inside of cells, protecting DNA and other interior proteins. Both types of antioxidants work mainly by preventing damage to cell protein. 

The most common and most important dietary antioxidants include:

Vitamin C. This is water-soluble and also comes in a supplement. 

Vitamin E. Fat-soluble. Vitamin E plays a crucial role in protecting cell membranes from damage. 

Flavonoids. These are plant-based antioxidants. 

Curcuminoids. These are especially notable since they are found in things like turmeric and extra virgin olive oil. These also have powerful anti-inflammatory properties.  Inflammation is a normal biological response, but chronic inflammation causes several serious illnesses. 

Sources of antioxidants

We can get all the antioxidants we need from dietary sources. For additional help with antioxidants, you can take things like a multivitamin that contains vitamin C, for example. Some of the best dietary sources of antioxidants include:

Dark Chocolate

This is healthier than other forms of chocolate. It has more nutritional value and it is much higher in antioxidants. Any diet that is rich in plants is high in antioxidants. Plant-based foods naturally contain antioxidants. 

Berries, green, tea, and coffee

Here are some of our favorites. Since most of us start the day with coffee, we are already getting a dose of antioxidants in our morning ritual. Green tea is a great alternative, and berries make a fine addition to any breakfast. 

Meat and fish

Both are rich in antioxidants. You should pay attention to your meat intake since this can offset the benefit of antioxidants with other things like too much cholesterol. Antioxidants tend to increase the shelf-life of many foods. They are frequently added to food products as a preservative. For example, vitamin C is often added to processed foods to preserve the product. 


These are a great source of healthy fats and minerals, plus contain a high amount of antioxidants.

Artichokes are especially rich in the antioxidant known as chlorogenic acid. Studies suggest that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of chlorogenic acid may reduce the risk of certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.


A cruciferous vegetable, kale is a member of the group of vegetables cultivated from the species Brassica oleracea. Other members include broccoli and cauliflower. It is one of the most nutritious greens on the planet and is rich in vitamins A, K, and C. It’s also rich in antioxidants. 

Red Cabbage

Also known as purple cabbage, it is rich in vitamins C, K, and A, and has a high antioxidant content.


This is a diverse group of legumes that are inexpensive and healthy. They are also incredibly high in fiber and are a great source of antioxidants. 


Also known as beetroot, are the roots of a vegetable scientifically known as Beta vulgaris. They have a mild taste and are a great source of fiber, potassium, iron, folate, and antioxidants. Beetroot is also extracted for antioxidant supplements.  

Spinach. This is one of the most nutritionally dense vegetables. It’s loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and is incredibly low in calories. 

Antioxidants side effects

If you get most, if not all, of your antioxidants from dietary sources, you should not experience any ill effects. However, you do need to be careful with antioxidant supplements. 

Some people have a difficult time with some major sources of antioxidants. People with certain food allergies, for example, may not be able to get enough antioxidants in their diets. Many healthy and safe supplements contain antioxidants, and many of these are simple vitamin supplements.

Taking antioxidant supplements can lead to some side effects. These can include:    

  • Signs of an allergic reaction, like rash; hives; itching; red, swollen, blistered, or peeling skin with or without fever; wheezing; tightness in the chest or throat; trouble breathing, swallowing, or talking; unusual hoarseness; or swelling of the mouth, face, lips, tongue, or throat.
  • Very upset stomach or throwing up.
  • Severe diarrhea.
  • Very bad constipation.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Numbness and tingling.

These side effects are generally rare. Few people take enough antioxidant supplements to cause these problems. 

In addition to antioxidant side effects, there is what is called the antioxidant paradox. When there is too high a concentration of antioxidants in the body, they can begin to do damage themselves. Too much antioxidant in our system can lead to damage of another kind and defeat the purpose of taking antioxidants.  

You should bear in mind that most research on antioxidants shows that antioxidants derived from diet provide more benefits than those from a supplement. In studies that compared people who got antioxidants in their diet with those who took antioxidant supplements that contained the same level and the same kinds of antioxidants, the people who relied on dietary antioxidants saw greater benefit than those who took the supplements. There appears to be a synergistic effect that comes with antioxidants that are in foods that isolated antioxidants cannot provide.

Antioxidants FAQs

What are antioxidants? 

Antioxidants are compounds that prevent or inhibit oxidation in the body. While oxidation is a natural part of biological functions, oxidation tends to create damage when it becomes too prevalent. 

How do antioxidants work? 

Antioxidants work by binding with dangerous free radicals in the body and making it possible for them to be eliminated through the liver and kidneys. 

How do we get antioxidants?

The best way to get antioxidants is by eating foods that are rich in antioxidants like fresh fruits and vegetables. 

What are the benefits of antioxidants? 

Antioxidants prevent damage to cells that can lead to serious illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and a declining immune system. 

Can I take an antioxidant supplement? 

Yes, there are many great antioxidant supplements, many of which are simple multivitamins. 


As scientists study common but serious illnesses, they discover more ways to fight these illnesses. Things like heart disease and cancer, it is now known, can be prevented by taking some simple steps like not smoking and eating right. Part of a healthy diet needs to include foods that are rich in antioxidants. 

In addition to being active, exercising, and eating a healthy diet, paying attention to eating foods that contain antioxidants can prevent many serious illnesses. Since antioxidants are now understood to block the damage caused by free radicals in the body, we can prevent that kind of damage from causing serious illness.

Antioxidants present a simple preventative measure that can not only keep us healthy but can extend our lives. What is more, antioxidants are present in a multitude of foods. Things like fresh fruits and vegetables provide us with all the antioxidants we need to prevent damage to cells. 

For those of us who need a little extra push with antioxidants, numerous healthy and safe supplements contain antioxidants. Just remember to take care when taking any supplement, try to focus on foods that contain antioxidants, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. 


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