By now, who hasn’t heard that they should be eating antioxidants? But have you got the message about why you should be anti oxidants in the first place, especially if you have a chronic illness?
Dr. William Sears explains “Our bodies are oxygen-burning machines. Every minute, countless biochemical reactions through the body generate exhausts called oxidants, or free radicals” (Prime Time Health p. 20). These particles damage our DNA, cells and tissues through a process known as oxidation. You’ve actually seen this happen – probably without knowing it – when a cut piece of apple or avocado browns over time. Or, when your aging car or bicycle rusts. Free radicals pull electrons from nearby molecules, altering their structure and function, and damaging tissues at the biochemical level. In the body, this ‘rusting’ leads to age-related changes like hardened arteries, stiff joints and wrinkled skin. Chronic oxidation activates inflammation pathways at the cellular level. In turn, chronic inflammation can lead to chronic disease, including cancer and arthritis, among many other conditions.
The body naturally produces antioxidants – substances that bind to free radicals, effectively neutralizing them. Many vitamins, like C and E, as well as minerals, like selenium, act as antioxidants. The antioxidant defence system is a key part of the body’s immune system, acting to protect our cells and tissues. “But when the body builds up more oxidants than antioxidants,” explains Dr. Sears, “the garbage backs up and increases the wear and tear on the tissues” (Prime Time Health, p. 21).
Increased oxidation is part of many chronic illnesses. Rheumatoid arthritis patients, for example, have increased levels of free radicals but decreased levels of antioxidants that “may contribute to tissue damage” and the chronic nature of the illness (Mateen et al., 2016). People living with fibromyalgia also have an imbalance of increased free radicals and decreased antioxidants (Cordero et al., 2010). This imbalance is called oxidative stress.
Can increasing your intake of anti-oxidants treat chronic conditions? The complex interaction between oxidation, inflammation, immune activation and genetic expression means that we don’t fully have the answer to that question yet. What we do know is that antioxidants are an integral part of maintaining overall health. When you live with a chronic condition, doing your best to maintain your general health can take the stress off your body’s healing mechanisms so that your body’s energy can be focused on living as well as possible with your chronic illness. For example, we know that eating sugary and fatty foods increases oxidative stress, which in turn, increases inflammation. In a vicious cycle, this exacerbates conditions like diabetes or arthritis. However, if you include more fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins, you can reduce oxidative stress and reduce inflammation.
By now you are probably anti all oxidants and wondering what you can do to boost your antioxidant defense system. The best source of anti-oxidants comes from foods rich in “phytonutrients” – vitamins, minerals and other healthful substances found in plants. The richest sources of phytonutrients are berries, dark leafy greens, colourful veggies, dark chocolate and green tea. Nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains are also valuable sources of antioxidants.
The easiest way to increase your antioxidant intake is to make a smoothie part of your daily routine. Try to go organic where possible, because organic fruits and veggies contain higher levels of phytonutrients.
My favourite morning smoothie (serves 1):
- 1/2 a cup mixed berries
- 1 banana
- 1/2 cup kale (you can’t taste it, I promise!)
- 1 tablespoon flax
- optional: 3-5 cherries for additional phytonutrient boost
- optional: 1/3 cup oatmeal for increased fibre and serving of whole grains,
- optional: 1 scoop of no-flavour protein powder (I use whey) or 2-3 tbsp hemp hearts for vegan protein
- optional: 1/3 cup coconut milk for healthy fat
Cordero, M. et al. (2010). Oxidative Stress and Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Fibromyalgia. Neuroendocrinology Letters, 31(2), pp. 101-105.
Mateen S, Moin S, Khan AQ, Zafar A, Fatima N (2016) Increased Reactive Oxygen Species Formation and Oxidative Stress in Rheumatoid Arthritis. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0152925. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0152925
Sears, W., & Sears, M. (2010). Prime-time health: A scientifically proven plan for feeling young and living longer. New York: Little, Brown and Co.