What’s all the fuss about antioxidants?

There doesn’t seem to be an advert about the next big ‘superfood’ without talking about how rich it is in antioxidants. It now seems that antioxidants have become another buzzword for ‘healthy’, but what exactly is an antioxidant and how are they of benefit to the body?


In order to understand what an antioxidant is and why they are important, it is probably a good idea to find out what an ‘oxidant’ is and why we are so ‘anti’ them! With so much focus being placed on antioxidants, it might be assumed that the oxidants we are trying to protect ourselves from are terrible compounds that are trying to destroy us from within. 


This actually couldn’t be further from the truth. When we talk about oxidants, we are in effect referring to a group of molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS are produced as a result of energy production and are a completely and usually safe part of normal function. However, other factors such as environmental stress and natural processes of aging increase the amount of ROS in the body. Exercise can also cause short term elevations in ROS but there are big differences between the effects of increased ROS caused by exercise and long term elevations above normal physiological levels.


Under normal circumstances, ROS have important positive functions such as cellular signallers, which are essential for the coordination and triggering of many essential physiological processes. The short term response after exercise has also been associated with initiating recovery and muscle growth. So, why are long term elevations in ROS so bad? Well, if left unchecked, there is an increased risk of cancers related to long-term elevations, as ROS can cause ‘oxidative damage’; this is damage to our DNA, the genetic code within cells, and this can cause mutations in cells that cause cancers. ROS are also the main cause of cellular aging and impacts on how our body produces enzymes, so we need to create enough of the right type of ROS to maintain healthy function, but reduce conditions that will cause long term elevations in ROS that can cause premature aging, illness and cancers. This is where antioxidants enter the equation.


Antioxidants offer protection against the negative effects of ROS and maintain a correct balance of ROS within the body, reducing the potential for oxidative damage and decreasing the risk of some types of cancer. As there are a large number of ROS, there are also large number antioxidants, to maintain their levels such as superoxide dismutase’s, which is produced in the body to remove organic peroxides which can be damaging to cells and dietary antioxidants such as vitamin C, E and Beta-carotene.


As with most physiological processes, there is an attempt by the body to maintain a balance between ROS production and antioxidant defence. It is the oxidation of various structures that have implications for health, for example, the oxidation of low density lipoproteins (LDL) leads to many of the negative health effects associated with high levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood.


Considering the importance of maintaining a balance of ROS and antioxidant defence, the importance of a diet that provides support to antioxidant function can be clearly seen; not just in terms of health, but in regard to the potential implications a diet lacking in antioxidant sources can have on both recovery and muscle growth. A healthy, balanced diet should be enough to provide the correct amount of antioxidants for most people. However, people who have placed a lot of stress on the body through working in poor environmental conditions, having poor nutritional intake or those who often ingest alcohol or other drugs should consider changes those habits, or if this is not possible, using antioxidant rich supplementation to limit the negative effects that can be caused.