The cells in your body are exposed to oxygen every day. Oxygen is important for your body’s health, but exposure to oxygen also causes oxidation. In oxidation, body chemicals are altered and become what are known as free radicals. Exposure to environmental factors, such as sun exposure, cigarette smoke, alcohol and pollution, also creates free radicals.
Over time, free radicals can cause a chain reaction in your body that damages important body chemicals, DNA and parts of your cells. Some cells can heal, while others are permanently damaged. Scientists believe free radicals may contribute to the aging process as well as diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Antioxidants are natural substances that may stop or limit the damage caused by free radicals. Your body uses antioxidants to stabilize the free radicals. This keeps them from causing damage to other cells. Antioxidants can protect and reverse the damage caused by oxidation to some extent.
Your body produces some antioxidants to fight off the free radicals formed by normal body processes. Your body can also get antioxidants by eating a healthy diet. Examples of antioxidant-rich foods include fruits and vegetables that are high in nutrients such as vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene and selenium.
Some people choose to take antioxidant supplements. Talk to your doctor if you are considering adding a supplement to your diet. Many supplements do not contain a balance of vitamins, minerals and enzymes and can actually have a negative effect on your health.
To get the most antioxidants, eat a diet that includes a healthy mix of colorful fruits and vegetables and other antioxidant-rich foods:
The best way to get antioxidants is by eating a diet with lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds and nuts. Variety is also important. If you take a multi-vitamin supplement, be careful. Too much of some nutrients, such as vitamins E and A or selenium, can be harmful. Be sure to talk to your doctor before taking any vitamin supplements.
This content was developed with general underwriting support from Nature Made®.
American Dietetic Association. What Is an Antioxidant?. Accessed May 12, 2010
Harvard School of Public Health. Antioxidants: Beyond the hype. Accessed May 12, 2010
Medline Plus. Antioxidants. Accessed May 12, 2010
National Cancer Institute. Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention: Fact Sheet. Accessed May 12, 2010
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Antioxidant Supplements: Prevention in a pill?. Accessed May 12, 2010
Cleveland Clinic. Antioxidants, Vitamin E, Beta Carotene, and cardiovascular disease. Accessed May 12, 2010
University of California-Berkeley Wellness Guide to Dietary Supplements. Selenium. Accessed May 12, 2010
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff