The word “antioxidant” has a similar connotation to the word “vitamin.” Many people hear how something has antioxidants in it and generally assume it means it’s good for them. When a word is used in this context enough, people generally take it as fact and fail to question what actually makes it good for them.
Food, as well as many other things in life, often is categorized as “good” or “bad” and that’s that. In reality, different foods, along with everything else, all have varying shades of gray. Antioxidants are not an exception, and we’ll touch on that here. But it begs the question, why are antioxidants “good” for you?
When it comes to Alzheimer’s, cancers, and many neurodegenerative diseases, many hold the feeling that anything that can reduce oxidative stress reduces risk for these types of disease. Antioxidants, as the name implies, resist oxidative damage.
Alzheimer’s, for example, involves the buildup of plaque (in this case in the brain) and causes mitochondrial dysfunction and blockages in neural networks. Since antioxidants potentially reduce the amount of plaque build-up (1), they are generally a good thing. Potential actions for reducing plaque buildup over time include: antioxidants, switching the energy source from glucose to ketones, and reducing the toxic load from pollutants and heavy metals.
What other diseases involve the buildup of plaque? Well heart disease and strokes involve plaque buildup in the blood vessel walls. Small plaque can either break off and cause blockages in the brain, or large buildup can cardiac arrests. Antioxidants are a great tool to help avoid LDL from oxidizing and adding to the plaque in the blood vessel walls and elsewhere.
Cancers are another example where the leading hypotheses involve oxidative stress and correspondingly damaged cell proteins (and/or dysfunctional mitochondria depending on who you talk to). More antioxidants to avoid mutated cells seems like a good thing generally speaking.
Some studies have actually shown an increase in cancer risk from supplemental antioxidants (2). How could this happen? Well, one, supplements may or may not have the ideal form of the antioxidant you’d find in nature. With supplementation, you always run the risk of putting some nutrients out of proportion with others. This is less likely to occur when eating real whole foods.
Because antioxidants are so good at inhibiting damage to cells, another possibility is they actually prevent damage to cancer cells if already present in your body. Particularly where there is already cell damage, antioxidants have the ability to act as a catalyst to accelerated cell damage.
So at the end of the day, there’s reason to call antioxidants “good.” But as with all things, there are shades of gray as well. The safe approach is to get an abundance of antioxidants in your diet through nutrient-dense whole foods. Check out this article by Nutrition Advice which has an extensive list of antioxidant and polyphenol rich foods effective in reducing inflammation. We also have a comprehensive eating and exercising plan that guides you through how to get the best ones in your life for the physique you want and the long-term health as well. How are you getting antioxidants in your life?