Do antioxidants work? Do you wonder if antioxidants actually prevent disease and slow aging?
Some studies show they do, whereas others are speculative at best, and an unfortunate blind eye to what antioxidants actually are and how they work hamper scientific confirmation. Here's what the research tells us.
The Natural Antioxidant System
The body has a natural antioxidant system that protects it from harmful molecules and free radicals, which are produced by the acute inflammatory response. When functioning at a high level, the natural antioxidant system allows for efficient metabolism of pollutants and free radicals.
These natural antioxidants are produced endogenously, which means they are made inside the body. The most important endogenous antioxidant is called glutathione. Low glutathione is linked to chronic disease, cancer, impaired immunity, and poor mental health. Children with autism have low levels of glutathione, and families that genetically tend to have low glutathione have greater incidence of disease and mental problems like schizophrenia.
Glutathione is naturally manufactured in the body from three amino acids—cysteine, glycine, and glutamine. Glutathione is a “sticky” molecule, which allows free radicals to attach to it and begin the removal process.
But glutathione doesn’t work its health-protecting magic alone. There are other endogenous antioxidants that are involved, and just as important, the body must also have adequate enzymes that facilitate the function of glutathione and its companion antioxidants.
What The Endogenous System Does
Around the core of antioxidants are the things that make them work—primarily enzymes—antioxidants do nothing on their own. The entire endogenous system must function optimally to keep you healthy. The natural antioxidant system includes three phases, and is called the Anti-inflammatory Cascade.
One way to enhance or activate the Cascade is to fuel it by consuming many of the nutrients and foods that we refer to as antioxidants. The antioxidants that are found in berries, olive oil, and other nutrients such as alpha lipoic acid will “turn on” the Cascade.
Something as simple as going for a walk and breathing in exhaust from a truck or the barely susceptible emissions from a car provides an example of how the Anti-inflammatory Cascade works. When you breathe in automobile emissions, the chemical compound benzene enters the body through your nasal passages. Your body needs to get rid of this compound, or it will enter circulation and cause oxidative stress that damages cells.
There are three phases that a compound like benzene goes through to be removed from the body. Phase one is considered an activation because it makes the compound more “dirty” or harmful for the body, but it’s a necessary ill on the way to elimination.
In phase one, a B vitamin, will attach to the benzene compound, preparing it for “mobilization” so that it can be sent on its way out of the body. Phase two is where glutathione and the Anti-inflammatory Cascade really come into play. Benzene is mobilized and joined to glutathione or a related antioxidant. It is then ready to be eliminated in phase three through the gut.
If you don’t have a robust internal antioxidant system with adequate glutathione, that “dirty” benzene compound will not make it into the second phase, but will enter back into circulation—bad news. Even if benzene makes it through phase two, if your gut is unhealthy, the compound will not be excreted and will go back into circulation, wrecking havoc on cells.
How It All Goes Wrong
An unhealthy gastrointestinal tract is one glitch in the Anti-inflammatory Cascade, but just as problematic is that many people don’t have a high-functioning antioxidant system. Poor diet, age, lack of physical activity, and excessive exposure to pollutants sap the system, particularly levels of glutathione.
For example, a study in the journal the Lancet found that healthy young people have the highest glutathione levels, whereas older healthy people have lower levels, sick elderly have even lower, and the hospitalized elderly have the lowest.
In addition, 2000 years ago our ancestors did not need such high-functioning antioxidant systems because they weren’t exposed to the level of pollutants that we are today. There is a large portion of the population that has limited antioxidant function—they are literally missing genes that allow the body to recycle and create glutathione at peak levels.
What You Can Do About It
The solution is to support a high-functioning antioxidant system through diet and strategic supplementation. You want your body to be able to regulate its own antioxidant levels so that it produces adequate glutathione and related enzymes when you need them.
Many of the antioxidants that we hear about in the media and marketing do help upregulate the body’s antioxidant system. Here are ten ways to help your body regulate its antioxidant levels.
1) Eat a nutrient-rich diet and minimize exposure to pollutants and metals in food. Eat organic and limit exposure to harmful compounds in personal care products and plastic containers.
The problem with getting a nutrient-rich diet is that the soil that grows our food is extremely depleted, making it that much harder to get adequate levels of magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, and others. For many people, especially those who don't have nutrient-rich whole food diets, the simplest solution is to take a high-quality multivitamin and supplement with other key nutrients.
2) Try to eat lots of green cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower because they are rich in sulfur, which will support glutathione production.
3) Get lots of phytoplants in your diet. Here’s where the antioxidants come in to play. Phytoplants refers to antioxidants that come from fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices that will enhance the production of enzymes needed for glutathione and the related endogenous antioxidants to work.
The cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower), dark green vegetables (kale, collards), berries (strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries), flavanol plants (green tea, cocoa, grape seeds, olives), spices and herbs (turmeric, ginger, boswellia), and others such garlic all have “antioxidants” that will improve the body’s antioxidant enzyme production. They also protect the vascular system and act as a barrier to free radicals that cause cancer.
4) Boost alpha lipoic acid (ALA) levels because ALA acts as an “antioxidant” in the body by upregulating the whole Anti-inflammatory Cascade. ALA is a short-chain fatty acid that is synthesized in the liver and is also obtained in the diet from animals and certain plants such as broccoli, tomato, spinach, brussel sprouts, and rice bran.
5) Get adequate protein to provide the amino acids necessary for glutathione synthesis. Remember, the amino acids cysteine, glutamine, and glycine make up glutathione, and lysine, threonine, and taurine support the endogenous antioxidant system. A high-quality whey protein that hasn’t been heated is a good choice to boost amino acid intake.
Additionally, you can supplement with n-acetyl-cysteine, which is the amino acid cysteine attached to an acetyl group. It has been used extensively to treat liver failure from alcohol or an acetaminophen overdose.
Cysteine can be gotten from most animal products. Likewise, glutamine and glycine can be supplemented or gotten from most animal sources. Raising dietary levels of both has shown to elevate glutathione and activate the Anti-inflammatory Cascade as seen by better liver function in rats and humans.
6) Methylated B vitamins are perhaps the most critical to keep the body producing glutathione. Be aware that genetic variations influence people’s ability to process B vitamins and produce glutathione and the Anti-inflammatory Cascade.
Each person has a genetic predisposition to be a “fast methylator” or “slow methylator.” If you are a slow methylator, your body’s ability to use B vitamins is impaired. The solution is to take an active form of methylated B vitamins because this will bypass the problem and allow the body to use B vitamins for phase one elimination.
7) Improve gut function with plenty of probiotic foods. The biggest reason the Anti-inflammatory Cascade is halted is inflammation in the gut. When the third phase of elimination is blocked, the phase two enzymes that are necessary for glutathione to work are downregulated, halting the whole process and causing more inflammation.
8) Understand the real deal with the typical vitamin-derived antioxidants that have been bashed in the media. Zinc and the vitamins C and E do actually work to recycle glutathione in the body. Vitamin C and E support the cascade and glutathione synthesis, which is why we often reach for them to boost the immune system.
However, other nutrients are also necessary to ensure adequate enzyme levels for glutathione synthesis. When your body lacks these nutrients, vitamin C and E are unable to enhance the immune system on their own.
If you eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables daily, you probably get adequate vitamin C and E, and other protective nutrients. The key words there are “wide variety” and “daily.”
Five servings are suggested as a minimal amount of fruit and vegetables everyday. If you’re not eating this amount, consider upping your intake, or take a supplement.
9) In general, avoid supplementing with glutathione. Glutathione needs to be internally produced because if you start supplementing with it, your body may stop producing it or recycling it effectively. Rather, you want your body to regulate its antioxidant levels by giving it the building blocks to produce glutamine, enzymes, and stimulate the Cascade.
10) Don’t overly rely or overdose on antioxidant supplements. This will result in a loss in the robustness of the detoxification system. Eat phytoplants, make sure you get amino acid building blocks, and support the Cascade rather than relying on antioxidants to save you.
Equally, dosing too much of some of these nutrients causes problems. You can reach a toxic level of zinc, ALA, and the vitamin antioxidants. Plant-based antioxidants are not as much of a problem, but vary what you eat so that you don’t eat the exact same thing everyday
Avoid eating superfruits out of season because it’s unnatural. You’ll get the best health benefits from eating foods that are in season, and you’ll avoid developing an intolerance or resistance to those foods.