Since the mid 1990s, antioxidants have been a buzzword in the fields of both nutrition and medicine.

Antioxidants are of interest to nutritionists (and naturopaths) because most antioxidants are found in food, and for medicine because antioxidants help prevent certain diseases including heart disease, cancer and possibly osteo-arthritis and autoimmune conditions.

The discovery of antioxidants and what they do in the body has transformed the old-fashioned message of eating fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains into scientific good sense.

Oxygen – friend and foe

We have come to know oxygen as a handy little molecule that helps us stay alive, but when oxygen is altered chemically it may oxidise certain substances to form free radicals. Free radicals are thought to be at least partially responsible for heart disease and cancer. Factors that add to this unfortunate state of affairs include radiation (from the sun, mobile phones, X-rays etc), carcinogens (like cigarette smoke, benzene, diesel exhaust), pesticides and the general process of aging. Oxidative damage is a fact of life.

Free radicals wreak havoc in the body, including – and this is the scary part – the DNA found in the central nucleus of cells. DNA is the blueprint or recipe for the creation of new cells. If the recipe is changed, new cells are created with a difference or mutation. Most times these mutated cells get gobbled up by the immune system, but sometimes they survive, and they divide in a manner not originally intended, for example forming a tumour. The number of potentially damaging hits to DNA per cell per day is about 100,000, and there are over 100 trillion cells per human. Considering this kind of bombardment, it’s a wonder we have time to make a cup of tea, let alone repair and protect all these cells from free radical damage.

Fruit to the rescue

In response to free radical damage, our body manufactures antioxidants on the spot (including superoxide dismutase and catalase). In addition our diet provides us with antioxidants. That is if the diet is a good one. In the last few years there has been a flurry of scientific research into antioxidants. Not a week goes by without another antioxidant being identified, often from the plant world. Which only goes to prove – never underestimate a vegetable.

You may already be familiar with antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E as well as zinc and selenium. In fact, a run-of-the-mill multivitamin and mineral supplement is a good source of antioxidants. However, don’t rely solely on supplements for your antioxidant intake. For a start, new antioxidants are being found all the time in simple everyday foods. For example, catechins (good for preventing heart disease and cancer) are found in tea (green and black) and red wine. Lycopene (helps prevent prostate cancer) is found in cooked tomatoes. Coincidentally many of the substances that make plants brightly coloured are antioxidants. Other plant antioxidants include; silymarin (in milk thistle) also good for the liver; curcumin another one good for the liver is found in the yellow Indian spice – turmeric; the detoxifying and antioxidant substance indole-3-carbinol is found in abundance in broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage.

We can’t stop all free radical damage, but we can help the body help itself. As a safeguard against the damage of free radicals it is really important to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly the strongly coloured varieties. If you wish to go further take antioxidant supplements, perhaps one that contains a combination of vitamin, mineral and plant antioxidants.