Everyone is talking about them! About the free radicals. But who knows exactly what they are? They are not a terrorist group that is spreading death around them. Nevertheless, they act as killers in our body. On the one hand they help us to fight diseases, on the other hand they are causing them. But we are not at the mercy of them helplessly. A sensible lifestyle and a diet rich in vitamins and minerals are the best protection against free radicals.
Let’s start with the good side of free radicals. The macrophages, which are a type of phagocyte, are part of the health police of our body. If they have caught an unwanted intruder, they engulf him. The macrophages produce free radicals inside of them. In doing so, they render invaders such as bacterias or toxins harmless. They destroy parts of their structure so that they can no longer live or are rendered harmless. Then the enemy is literally digested. The free radicals are capable to exert the same destructive activity on our own body if they are not prevented from doing their work by a very sophisticated protective system in our body.
Every day hundreds of thousands of free radicals are produced in our body. As villains, they invade the cells of the body and try to destroy whatever is in front of them. They don’t even stop at genetic material! They incorporate false information, destroy cell parts such as protein structures and fats, or render hormones and enzymes ineffective. Through their work, cancer cells can develop, as well as cataracts, diabetes, arteriosclerosis, skin diseases, our cells age and therefore we ourselves.
Where do these intruders come from? We know sources outside the body like ionizing rays, ozone and smog. They also arise when smoking, and during normal metabolic processes in the body itself, because it is a long way from the salad plate we eat for lunch to the energy that the body can use. During this process, molecules are broken down, rebuilt, and reconstructed. Molecules are made up of atoms. In them are electrons buzzing around, that like to pair in a certain manner. No electron likes to be alone. If it does happen, the lonely electron looks for a new partner. This happens very quickly and at the expense of another molecule, which then becomes a free radical itself. A chain reaction occurs. This chain reaction is often triggered by oxygen. One well known example of free radical damage is the oxidation of unsaturated fat. When oxygen attacks the unsaturated double bond of a fat, it becomes rancid. We therefore also speak of oxidative stress, because most free radicals are created by oxygen and UV rays. The body is not at the mercy of this stress, however; a whole defensive force is available to protect it.
Possible Sources of Free Radicals
- Cigarette smoke
- Ionizing radiation
- Ultraviolet light
- Extreme exercise
- Grilled meat
- Overheated fats
Now fruits and vegetables come into play. Vitamins A, C and E provide what the free radicals are looking for: an electron. This turns the aggressive attacker into a peaceful compound that serves the body well. The vitamins themselves become free radicals due to the loss of the electron. But they are not dangerous. They wait patiently until another vitamin comes along and gives them an electron. In this wonderful way, the vitamins connect to complement each other. That is also the reason why we get along with such small amounts of vitamins.
Carotenoids are also free radical scavengers. The most famous is currently lycopene, which is found in tomatoes. Watermelons, rose hips and grapefruits also provide a lot of lycopene, everything that is red, because lycopene is contained in the red coloring matter of fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, it was already known a hundred years ago that tomatoes were a natural remedy for cell damage, just lycopene was still unknown at the time.
Many so-called phytochemicals also aim to trap radicals. This includes a wide variety of chemical compounds that the plants actually form primarily for their own protection. Because event the plants are also at the mercy of free radicals and have to protect themselves from them. The ultraviolet rays of the sun and the oxygen around them create loads of free radicals. Therefore, the plants have acquired a sophisticated protection system. For example, they lignify some of their shoots. The lignin that is formed, is a radical scavenger. We have already got to know the carotenoids. These protect the plant from aggressive rays. A variety of plant pigments have the same protective function. And the best thing is that through the diet, we humans can use the same protective factors that the plant created for us. That is why eating a lot of fruit and vegetables offers optimal protection against many diseases that can arise from free radical damage.
But our miraculous body does not rely solely on plant compounds. He mobilizes a well-functioning defense force himself to catch radicals. He builds enzymes with such complicated names like glutathione peroxidase or superoxide dismutase, which also go out to catch radicals like the vitamins. But selenium, zinc, magnesium and copper are needed for their formation. These are minerals that again plants are providing for us.
We see that there has to be a very fine balance between free radicals and the entire defense force. Without them, our bodies would rust, become rancid and age quickly. To a large extent, it is also up to us how quickly we get old or what diseases we get. Varied meals rich in fruits and vegetables, along with a sensible lifestyle with little stress, without smoking, alcohol and poor air are the best conditions for good health.
It is important to state that plants are rich sources of antioxidants, while animal products are almost devoid of them. Some plant sources are 30 times higher in antioxidants than meat.1)Monica H. Carlson et.al. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutr J. 2010; 9: 3. So what are you going to put on your salad plate today?
Best Antioxidant Sources
Berries: They have the highest concentration of antioxidants among fruits. Blueberries, Rose hips, Strawberries, Raspberries and Goji Berries are among the top contenders.
Spices: They are the plant group with the highest antioxidant concentrations. Even though you use them in small quantities, they can provide a positive contribution for your antioxidant mix. Oregano, mint, thyme and rosemary are among the top contenders in this category, but a good variety of spices will give you a boost for your health.
Nuts: Another food group high in antioxidants. Walnuts and Pecans are on the top of the list, but in all nuts the pellicle is the richest antioxidant source. Due to the high fat content, nuts should be of course consumed in moderation.
Fruits: Most fruits are a good antioxidant source, while those with more color are higher in antioxidant concentration. We know that dark grapes protect the heart for that reason. Prunes are another good option. Always eat your fruits with the skin, which is the most valuable component of the fruit. Dried fruits are more concentrated in all their nutrients, including antioxidants.
Vegetables: Dark green vegetables are nutrient rich and high in antioxidants. Don´t forget to include kale into your diet. Artichokes are especially high in antioxidants as well as moringa leafs, fresh as well as dried. Red cabbage will be another good option. Orange vegetables like carrots, squash and sweet potatoes are rich in carotenoids. And don´t forget the sulphur components in garlic and onions.
This is just a selection of some of the best antioxidant sources. Use a good variety of fruits and vegetables, and you will have an ample supply of protective foods in your diet. We did not include in this list coffee, green tea, cocoa powder, cinnamon and clove, which are rich in antioxidants, but will cause other kind of health concerns.
Esther Neumann studied Nutrition at the University of Vienna. Since then she served as an author for the health magazine “Leben und Gesundheit” and conducted health lectures in various locations of Austria.