Antioxidants are an invaluable addition to our diets, with far-reaching health benefits.
But what's the best way to ensure you're getting enough? Which antioxidant supplements are safe and what antioxidant benefits you should be looking for?
In this blog, we aim to demystify the topic and help ensure you're hitting your daily intake.
What are antioxidants?
There are several different types of antioxidants, including vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
The most commonly known antioxidants are vitamins A, C and E, and minerals zinc and selenium.
Other antioxidants come in the form of carotenes, e.g. beta carotene and lycopene, and phenolic compounds, e.g. quercetin, catechins and resveratrol.
We naturally produce some antioxidants like glutathione, COQ10 and alpha-lipoic acid, and the rest we get from food.
Antioxidants defend against excessive free radicals, which lead to oxidative stress, DNA and cell damage and an increased risk of premature ageing, inflammation and chronic disease, including heart disease and cancer.
We generate free radicals in response to stress, environmental toxins and pollutants, poor diet and processed foods, medication, ultraviolet rays, tobacco smoke, X-rays, industrial chemicals and more.
Our bodies also naturally produce them as a by-product of normal metabolic processes, e.g. part of an immune response. In this respect, they’re not entirely harmful, and we need a certain amount to survive.
But free radicals are unstable, highly reactive and persistent. In excess, they become harmful. So we need a constant supply of antioxidants to scavenge and control them.
If your antioxidant status is low due to a poor diet, ageing, illness, smoking, or exposure to toxins, it can lead to oxidative damage and all the health risks that come with it.
7 health benefits of antioxidants
So, just what can antioxidants do for you? Here, we list 7 notable health benefits of antioxidants.
1. Protect eye function
Some antioxidants have a particular affinity with our eyes, such as lutein and zeaxanthin.
They are found in high concentrations in the macula and help to prevent macular degeneration.
Vitamins C, E and beta carotene and the mineral zinc can also help protect against this eye disorder.
2. Bolster heart health
Antioxidants in food may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and atherosclerosis.
Lycopene, an antioxidant carotenoid, can help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
Oxidative stress plays a role in the ageing of hair follicles, directly impacting hair colour and quality as we age.
One small study successfully treated alopecia patients by supplementing vitamin E. Vitamin C aids collagen production, which protects hair follicles and improves hair quality and strength.
4. Increase collagen production
Because vitamin C encourages collagen production, it helps to promote promoting smoother, more youthful skin.
Lycopene may also help towards skin cancer prevention while vitamin A is essential for skin health.
Beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A which converts to retinol in the liver, can protect against skin damage and premature ageing.
5. Cognitive protection
Consuming a diet rich in antioxidants like vitamins C and E may modestly reduce the long term risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
And some research shows a correlation between the Mediterranean diet (high in fruits and vegetables) and dementia prevention.
6. Blood glucose management
Preliminary research through clinical trials shows that antioxidants may help prevent diabetes, and vitamin E may help reduce blood glucose.
7. Immune health
Antioxidants help protect immune cells from damage, and they may also play a role in cell-mediated immunity.
Vitamins A, C, and E help prevent infection and increased selenium levels are linked to improved immune response.
The potential dangers of taking antioxidants as supplements
Research is conflicted, but on balance, evidence suggests taking antioxidants in higher doses doesn’t necessarily increase the benefits – and in some cases could be harmful.
Antioxidants from food work in synchronicity with other antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and nutrients also provided with that food.
You can consume plenty of healthy food without overdosing on the nutrients they provide. One important fact to note is that antioxidants are substances, which in concentrated supplement form can be too much of a good thing.
Often, supplements focus on one isolated antioxidant, e.g. a vitamin C or vitamin A supplement. These don’t benefit from the synergistic relationship with other nutrients you’ll naturally find in food.
Supplements can provide just one particular form of an antioxidant, where more are found in food.
For example, eight natural forms of vitamin E and three forms of vitamin A exist (plus provitamin A as carotenoids). Often, a vitamin E supplement will only contain the most active form of vitamin E, alpha-tocopherol.
Like all supplements, it’s possible to overdose. You need to be aware of each antioxidant’s ‘safe upper level’ and be careful not to go over the recommended amounts.
For example, taken in excess, zinc can inhibit the absorption of copper, which is vital for immunity, cardiovascular health and many other functions.
That said, opinions differ, and amounts can depend on your circumstances. There may be instances where taking a particular antioxidant in high doses is beneficial, but you should only do this with the help of a health professional.
Some research shows that high antioxidant doses, particularly vitamins C and E, may interfere with exercise recovery.
Research is mixed regarding antioxidant supplements and heart disease. Some studies have found moderately positive effects from vitamin E.
Much data support the anti-inflammatory effect of carotenoids and cardiovascular protection, and some researchers hypothesise that negative findings may be due to supplementing with synthetic supplements.
Research is also conflicted for cancer. Meta-analyses of several scientific studies conclude taking antioxidants doesn’t protect against the disease or decrease the risk of cancer death.
Some suggest it may even have the potential to increase cancer risk.
However, only nine randomised, controlled trials have been conducted worldwide, so more research is needed.
High doses of vitamin A may also cause congenital anomalies and are not advised during pregnancy.
When should you consider taking antioxidant supplements?
A recent dietary survey found that up to 30% of adults in the UK have a zinc deficiency. Zinc is a vital mineral with antioxidant power, essential for many functions, including immunity and the prevention of age-related macular degeneration and chronic disease. It can also shorten the duration of a cold.
We don’t store zinc and need a constant supply from food. If your levels are low, you may benefit from taking a zinc supplement. The daily reference nutrient intake for adult men is 9.5mg and 7mg for adult women.
Be careful not to overdose as it can inhibit copper absorption and depress your immune system. Alongside eating zinc-rich foods, the daily safe upper level for zinc supplements in the UK is 25mg for 60kg adults, going up depending on your weight.
It can be beneficial to take vitamin C supplements to speed recovery from a cold. It may also be advisable if you’re a smoker, which increases free radical damage, usurping valuable vitamin C stores.
Research suggests that smokers need an extra 35mg of vitamin C a day. 1000mg a day should be safe for adults. If you wish to take higher doses, seek the advice of a health professional.
Various supplement combinations of vitamins E and C, beta carotene, zinc, lutein, and zeaxanthin, have helped prevent age-related macular degeneration progression. When taken alone, there were no benefits for vitamin E or lutein/zeaxanthin.
Glutathione is an especially powerful antioxidant. We produce it in every cell of our body, and it’s arguably one of the most crucial molecules when it comes to long-term good health and disease prevention.
Ageing, stress, chronic disease, infection and toxicity can seriously affect glutathione levels. It’s hard to get from food, so in this case, you may wish to supplement.
There are cardiovascular benefits to supplementing with coenzyme Q10, particularly if you have low levels. After a Swedish study lasting 12 years, researchers saw a 40% reduction in cardiovascular mortality in those taking a daily supplement of coenzyme Q10 (200mg) and selenium (200mg).
According to leading cardiologist Dr Stephen Sinatra, over 40s should aim for 50-100mg per day; over 60s and statin users, 100-200mg; and people who have suffered a heart attack, 200-300mg. Those aged 20-40 might aim for 50mg daily or 100mg every other day. If you favour a higher dose (200-300mg), divide your intake throughout the day.
Antioxidants from food are best
A higher intake of antioxidant-rich fruits, plant-based foods, vegetables and legumes correlates with reduced oxidative stress and chronic disease risk, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
People who eat more fruits and vegetables are healthier with a lower risk of disease as plant foods are packed with nutrients, including antioxidants, which protect our health.
Antioxidants work in synergy with these vitamins and minerals to keep you fit, healthy and robust.
Take the humble kiwi. It’s antioxidant-rich, being exceptionally high in vitamin C. It’s high in fibre and supplies other nutrients, including vitamin K, potassium and folate.
All these nutrients work together, helping to strengthen immunity, aid digestion and reduce the risk of numerous diseases.
You don’t need fancy superfoods. Just stick to a natural diet focused on eating a wide range of nutrient-dense whole foods, including brightly coloured fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and other plant foods like nuts, seeds, and oils.
Fish, seafood, poultry and other meats also contain antioxidants.
Natural, nutrient-dense foods provide the most comprehensive range of antioxidants, combined with all the other minerals, vitamins and health-giving properties that come with them.
Research is conflicted as to the benefits and harms of taking high dose antioxidants. However, there are instances where they may be effective.
If you would like to supplement, try a whole food version that retains all the nutritional aspects of each food it contains rather than isolating one specific antioxidant.
If you decide you’d like to take a supplement in isolated form, go for natural versions which your body can assimilate more effectively than synthetic ones.
Regardless, eating a natural diet with a diverse, brightly coloured range of plant foods that provide an array of antioxidants alongside a host of other nutrients is the most beneficial. If you do choose to supplement, take them alongside a healthy diet and antioxidant-rich foods.
Written by Rebecca Rychlik, Nutritional Therapist and Homeopath. Follow Rebecca on Instagram, Facebook and Medium, @rebeccabitesback.
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Antioxidants defend against excessive free radicals, which lead to oxidative stress, DNA and cell damage.