Inside your body, an army of antioxidants is protecting you from the forces of aging and disease. Here’s why we’re huge fans of these stellar nutrients and how you can get more on your side.
Labels on everything from chocolate to pomegranate juice to moisturizer scream the benefits of antioxidants. And we’re happy to report that it’s not just hype. One study after another has shown that antioxidants help prevent cancer and heart disease, safeguard memory, reduce the risk of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, protect joints, soothe pain, reduce muscle soreness and fatigue, avert blindness caused by macular degeneration and cataracts, and even ward off wrinkles.
That’s all amazing news, but it begs two big questions: What exactly are antioxidants? And how can this super antioxidant possibly fight off such a wide array of health problems? We investigated these warriors of the health world and discovered how they patrol every part of our body, repairing damaged molecules that if allowed to run rampant would accelerate aging and disease. By the time you’re done reading this, you’ll want every meal you eat — and every product you put on your skin — to be packed with antioxidant power.
When Radicals Attack
Before we can get to the “anti,” let’s explain the “oxidant” part. Unless you’re a monk living in the Himalayas, eating pure food, breathing pristine air, and thinking Zen thoughts 24/7, you’re constantly being bombarded by negative elements — from pollution to chemicals to UV rays — that damage your cells. Even your own body produces stress hormones and toxic chemical reactions. These toxins weaken the molecules in your cells, causing them to lose an electron — a unit in the cell that carries electrical charges and allows your cells to work together. These electron-deprived molecules, called free radicals, or oxidants, try to make up for their inadequacy by stealing electrons from other molecules; this damages, or oxidizes, those cells and turns them into electron-swiping free radicals too. Call it the invasion of the electron snatchers.
Once a free radical is created, the damage spreads fast. Free radicals in your blood vessels — usually caused by things like deep-fried foods, cigarette smoke, or air pollution — change the structure of the (bad) LDL cholesterol so it becomes more liable to gum up your arteries and cause heart problems. Sunlight and air pollution can create free radicals in your eyes, where they damage retinal or corneal cells, leading to cataracts and blindness, and in skin cells, where they damage cell DNA, raising the risk of skin cancer and accelerating wrinkle formation. And that’s just for starters: “Free radicals can damage any cells that get in their way,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and director of the antioxidant lab at Tufts University in Boston.