You have likely heard the word “antioxidant” plenty of times, usually in reference to a light-harvesting plant-pigment (like beta-carotene) or a familiar micronutrient (like vitamin C). But when you think of antioxidants, do you think of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish? The zinc in your pumpkin seeds? The vitamin E in your avocado? There are more antioxidants doing work for you right now than you are likely aware of! Secret antioxidant agents abound in your diet. Let’s blow their cover.
Hot Potato Electrons- What Antioxidants Do
When iron reacts with oxygen, it rusts, and you can see the results of that reaction. Over time in the presence of oxygen, the iron breaks down and degrades, no longer useful for its original purpose. What is actually happening here? Oxygen is unstable, and steals an electron from iron. When this happens, the oxygen becomes more stable and the iron becomes unstable. When oxygen steals an electron form iron we say that the iron has been oxidized.
In your body, oxidation reactions have a hot-potato effect. An unstable compound steals an electron from a stable one, making that compound unstable, which in turn steals an electron from another stable compound, making that compound unstable. The cycle continues. The electron, like a hot potato, gets passed from compound to compound. And like the iron degrading over time, this “rusting” or “electron stealing” or “oxidation” can damage your tissues.
In your body, the net effect of oxidation is damage, and damage leads to inflammation: emergency vehicles show up at the scene, lights blinking and horns blazing, to repair the damage. While damage repair is great, constant oxidation leads to constant repair. Chronic inflammation results- and as you may be aware, chronic inflammation leads to a wide variety of metabolic disease such as obesity, diabetes, digestive issues, autoimmune conditions, joint problems, osteoporosis, and even cancer.
You may be aware that plant pigments act as antioxidants. Some plant pigments, like green chlorophyll, can both trap electrons from light and store it as usable chemical energy (sugar) as well as reduce oxidative damage to the plant. Other plant pigments function exclusively as antioxidants, like the anthocyanins in blueberries. A given plant can have several types of pigments, even if one dominates what you see. This is why when leaves change color in the fall, green chlorophyll yields to the red, orange, and yellow carotenoids underneath. While most commonly discussed antioxidants are either plant pigments or vitamins found in plants- many dietitians tell their patients to eat a rainbow of color for diverse antioxidant intake- today we are discussing the drab.
Secret Agent Antioxidants
With all due respect to their colorful counterparts, not all antioxidants are beautifully obvious. Some are undercover. Let’s discuss four powerful antioxidants you can’t afford to miss out on!
What it is: Glutathione is a very powerful antioxidant that you can make in your body from the amino acids glutamine, glycine, and cysteine. It is often referred to as the “King” of antioxidants.
What it does: As an antioxidant, glutathione has the amazing ability to regenerate itself and other antioxidants such as vitamin C, after they have donated their electrons to stabilize free radicals- so they can do their good works over and over again! Glutathione is a cellular protector against oxidative stress that is particularly robust. It can protect cell membranes and mitochondria (cellular engines), defend against heavy metal damage, help you detoxify carcinogens and other unwanted toxins, and prevent other oxidative cell damage. Glutathione is also involved in making and repairing your DNA, making proteins, taxiing amino acids, activating specific enzymes, supporting your immune system, and it is currently being studied closely for its role in protecting your brain.
Food Sources: Limiting factors in producing glutathione are often not having enough of the amino acid cysteine and the mineral selenium. Sulfur-rich foods contain cysteine, such as cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, arugula, cabbage, mustard greens, brussel sprouts…), alliums (garlic, onion, leeks, shallots… ), legumes, and eggs. Selenium is harder to obtain regularly because our soils tend to be selenium-deficient. Selenium can be found in Brazil nuts, seafood, liver, dairy, eggs, muscle meats, whole grains, garlic, cabbage, and celery. Therefore, pick up some garlic or cabbage to get a decent dose of each. Raw fruits and vegetables are good sources of vitamin C, which also helps boost glutathione levels.
Supplemental Sources: For some, meeting the RDI of 55 micrograms of selenium each day (with nutreince, for instance) is enough to boost glutathione manufacturing. However, the best natural source of glutathione is organic whey protein (like our IN.POWER organic whey). Including a serving of organic whey protein powder into your daily routine is a great way to keep glutathione levels up. We do not recommend supplementing directly with glutathione as research shows it unlikely to have much of an effect and may reduce your body's natural ability to manufacture glutathione.
Lifestyle Adjustments: The less oxidative stress you put yourself through, the better your glutathione levels will be when you need them for a sudden hazard. Long term oxidative and physical stress- be it from smoking, air pollution, drinking alcohol, undergoing chemotherapy, eating fried food regularly, constant mental chatter, or over-exercising, depletes glutathione, vitamin C, and other antioxidants.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
What they are: Omega-3 fatty acids come in three forms: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) found naturally in plants and some animals and EPA and DHA found in animal sources only.
What they do: Interestingly, omega-3 fatty acids qualify as antioxidants. They are not robust antioxidants, but they have been shown to reduce free radical damage and are thought to boost levels of other antioxidants. They are critical for your metabolic health and help build cell membranes. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats rule your inflammatory response because they are precursors to compounds that turn it on and off. This is why we are laser-focused on your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio– you want it to be 1:1- and provide products that give you the healthy fats you need without skyrocketing your intake of inflammation causing omega-6 fatty acids. Our SKINNYFat Olive, for instance, boasts 85% less omega-6 and more monounsaturated heart-healthy fatty acids than your typical olive oil, while our Origin Omega improves on other fish oils by dividing your EPA and DHA, which compete with each other resulting in reduced benefits, into morning and night doses. As you may have read in our recent post on these amazing fats, animal sourced omega-3 fats support cell membranes and protect them from free radical damage while helping to lower triglycerides, boost HDL-cholesterol (the one you want to increase), and, of course, reduce inflammation.
Food Sources: Wild caught salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies, and rainbow trout are great choices due to their size and relative sustainability. Pastured eggs and grass-fed beef have higher omega-3 levels than their conventional counterparts. For vegans, algae-based DHA is available, but note that the science supports a greater anti-inflammatory benefit from both EPA and DHA than either alone. Need a great source for high quality fish? Click here to check out Vital Choice seafood! Consider supplementation if you do not tolerate seafood.
Supplemental Sources: We want you to get the nutrition you deserve that packs the biggest metabolic punch possible! Origin Omega packs in over 700 mg of EPA and 700 mg of DHA every day and separates the doses so they do not compete for absorption. This is enough to show a therapeutic benefit in many studies, especially improvements in mental health. Choose quality and get what you pay for.
Lifestyle Adjustments: Certain medications, including estrogen replacement therapies, statin drugs, or lipase inhibitors (such as Orlistat) will block the absorption of omega-3 fats. Do you live in a big city, are post-menopausal, or looking to become pregnant? Some of us that need more omega-3 fats and aren’t at a high risk of heart disease aren’t necessarily aware of the value of these anti-inflammatory fats. For those with difficulty digesting and absorbing fats, read this article on nurturing your gallbladder and bile flow to get more of the healthy fats you eat into your body and working for you!
What it is: Selenium is an essential mineral that acts as an antioxidant, supports healthy immune system activity and is necessary for thyroid health.
What it does: Through the late 1950’s, selenium was thought to be toxic at any dosage, Although it can be toxic at extremely high doses (more than 900 mcg), selenium is now recognized as an essential trace mineral as both humans and animals require selenium for the synthesis of selenium-dependent enzymes called selenoproteins. Selenium plays important roles in detoxification and antioxidant defense mechanisms in the body, and seems to have a strong protective synergy with vitamin E. Selenium is also used by our bodies to produce glutathione. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition researches found that supplementation with selenium for between 3 and 6 months significantly increased glutathione activity. Being sufficient in selenium has also been shown to have anti-cancer benefits, provides protection from Keshan disease (causing heart cardiomyapathies) and Kashin-Becks disease (results in destruction of the joint tissue), is essential for proper thyroid health, and can help the body detoxify heavy metals.
Food Sources: Many areas including Africa, Russia, New Zealand, and China have been identified as high-risk selenium deficiency areas. In the US. Parts of the Pacific Northwest, parts of the Great Lakes region moving eastward toward the New England states, and parts of the Atlantic Coast have also been identified as selenium-deficient regions. The richest food sources of selenium are organ meats, seafood and muscle meats, selenium is also found in Brazil nuts, dairy, eggs, whole grains, garlic, cabbage, and celery.
Lifestyle Adjustments: Medications such as atypical antipsychotics (Clozapine), or corticosteroids reduce the body’s supply of selenium. Talk to your doctor about adjusting your medications, if necessary. Lifestyle factors such as air pollution, alcohol, exercise, high omega 6 foods, and smoking can utilize selenium at a faster than normal rate.
Supplemental Sources: The RDI for selenium is 55mg, avoid mega dosing (more than 900 mcg) or taking excessive amounts on a regular basis (more than 600 mcg for an extended period of time). It is important to take an organic form of selenium (selenomethioine) and not an inorganic form such as sodium selenite to avoid seleniums competition with vitamin C.
We formulated our nutreince multivitamin with a very safe, and effective dose of 55 mcg of selenium in the form of selenomethioine, enough to boost your total antioxidant levels including glutathione. Importantly, we have also paired our selenium with lots of synergistic free-radical-fighters, such as vitamin C and E so that selenium can do its best work.
What it is: Zinc is the second most abundant trace mineral in your body. More than just another shiny metal, zinc is a cofactor for about 300 known enzymes in your body and is also part of hundreds of other enzymes.
What it does: Zinc plays many chemical roles in your body and one of them is as an antioxidant., Zinc plays both direct and indirect roles as an antioxidant. Zinc can directly protect proteins with special sulfur-containing chemistry and is able to donate an electron to reduce free radical production from unstable metals like iron or copper. Indirectly, zinc helps you make metallothionein, an important protein that helps you get rid of heavy metals, and helps boost levels of glutathione. Zinc also plays an important role in protecting skin from damage.
While today we are focused on zinc’s role as an antioxidant, zinc is part of hundreds of enzymes and serves as a cofactor for hundreds more. Zinc is involved in making RNA, DNA, and protein (about ⅓ of your zinc is in your cells’ nuclei to help read genetic code and make proteins), supporting your immune system as it mounts an attack against invaders, maintaining the integrity of your gut lining, improving insulin sensitivity, making thyroid hormone, transporting vitamin A to your cells, making sperm, producing sex hormones, boosting mood, and healing wounds. Beyond correcting frank zinc deficiency, zinc is likely to be effective for treating acne, reducing your risk of developing age-related macular degeneration, helping you fight off the common cold, treating antidepressant-resistant depression, improving blood sugar control, slowing bone loss in postmenopausal women, healing from stomach ulcers, improving vitamin A levels when supplementing, and treating warts. We could go on, but we’d be here all day.
Food Sources: Zinc is found in protein foods, and is particularly high in oysters, red meat, and pumpkin seeds. Zinc is easy to find in food, but because many nutrients compete with zinc for absorption, some people with adequate intake still can fall short. This is the case with many minerals, and we suggest you supplement wisely if you think you are zinc deficient. Boosting your stomach acid can help you absorb zinc from foods more easily. Chew your zinc-rich proteins well and both the act of chewing and eating protein will boost stomach acid and help you absorb zinc.
Those on a raw or vegan diet may have trouble absorbing zinc because they may not make enough stomach acid and the zinc may be heavily bound to phytates found in grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Soaking and sprouting these foods on a raw diet can help liberate zinc for absorption. The casein protein and calcium content in dairy reduces zinc absorption, as does coffee, which can reduce absorption a whopping 50%- so all bets are off if you eat zinc-rich protein while sipping a latte.
Supplemental Sources: Supplemental zinc can also be difficult to absorb, but we accepted the challenge when we formulated our nutreince multivitamin, which contains the RDI of 11 mg in an easy-to-absorb Zinc Glycinate form- no more, no less- so you can get what you need without reducing your absorption of other important minerals. We do not recommend larger doses of zinc for maintenance because too much supplemental zinc can decrease your copper levels and cause nausea. Moreover, other micronutrients that directly compete for absorption with zinc, such as calcium, iron, copper and vitamin B9 (folate) have been separated from the zinc in nutreince to ensure improved absorption and utilization – remember, too much of any one micronutrient can negatively affect your levels of others. Like all nutritional advice, we highly recommend you strive for balance. This includes your zinc intake.
Lifestyle Adjustments: Avoid excessive intake of phytates from plant foods and consider sprouting, soaking, and cooking plant foods to liberate zinc for absorption. Be mindful of medications that may be affected by supplemental zinc beyond the RDA, such as atazanavir, cephalexin, cisplatin, integrase inhibitors, pencillamine, quinolone antibiotics (end in -floxacin), ritonavir, and tetracycline antibiotics. Avoid antacids and proton pump inhibitors because they reduce your likelihood of absorbing zinc- and other minerals.
Reduce Damage as you Boost Your Capacity to Repair
Central to any discussion on antioxidants is to improve your lifestyle habits wherever you can- reduce your environmental exposure to toxic chemicals in air, water, plastics, beauty products, cleaning products, smoke, intoxicants, and poor quality, pesticide-laden foods. By making even small changes in these areas you will use up your antioxidants less quickly and they will be more available when you need them. But the real world is just that- real. What you have control over may vary from day to day, and your best defense is a great offense. So don’t neglect these undercover antioxidants- even if some of them are new to your knowledge, they have been fighting on your health team since you were born. You can learn much, much more about antioxidants and what they do to support your health in our book, The Micronutrient Miracle, which we find pairs well with an evening nutreince drink and a warm bath.