Free radicals have received a lot of publicity in recent years, because modern medical research has identified free radical damage as an underlying cause of premature aging and many chronic and degenerative diseases. Overall, free radicals have been implicated in the pathogenesis of at least 50 diseases.
Free radicals are molecules that are missing electrons. Since these compounds are “hungry” for electrons they “steal” them from other compounds, such as cell membranes, DNA or other cellular components. This destabilizes the tissues that have been robbed of electrons, causing them to also steal electrons perpetuating the damage. This process is also known as oxidation.
Oxidation is a natural process occurring all around us. For example, when a fire is burning, wood or other fuel is being rapidly oxidized or broken down to release heat and light. Most oxidation takes place more slowly, such as iron rusting or silver tarnishing.
The body uses controlled oxidation to burn carbohydrates, fats and proteins, releasing the energy stored in them for cellular functions. The body also uses oxidation to destroy invading microbes as part of the immune response.
So, as long as oxidation is controlled, it is a useful part of the process of life. Free radicals, however, cause oxidation to spin out of control, thus damaging life. You see this process at work when you cut into an apple and it turns brown. Oxidation or free radical damage causes the apple to start to decay.
Neutralizing Free Radicals with Antioxidants
Antioxidants are compounds that prevent oxidation from causing healthy tissues to decay. They are like the radiator or cooling system in your car. Your car engine burns or oxidizes gasoline in a controlled way, but this generates excess heat. The cooling system of your car removes this heat to keep it from damaging the engine. Antioxidants have the same function in living tissues—they keep the metabolic engine from “overheating” and causing damage to the body.
An antioxidant is a substance that can donate an electron without becoming immediately unstable. The antioxidant donates an electron to the free radical, making it stable. This is why putting slices of apple into some water containing vitamin C, an antioxidant, will keep them from turning brown as quickly.
Without the aid of antioxidants, oxidation can damage DNA, causing cells to mutate and become cancerous. Oxidative damage will also give rise to arterial plaque, causing heart disease and increasing the risk of strokes. Without antioxidants, free radicals can damage brain tissue, leading to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease or senility.
In short, antioxidants are Nature’s anti-aging compounds, protecting us from diseases associated with aging. The best way to get these compounds is from whole foods and herbs. Plants are rich in antioxidants, because they are also subject to free radical damage, so they protect themselves by producing antioxidant compounds. When we eat these plants, we get the benefit of those antioxidants. That’s why most nutritional experts agree that eating 5 to 7 one-half cup servings of fresh fruits and vegetables is one of the best things anyone can do to improve their health.
Eating the Rainbow
The beautiful colors of fresh produce are primarily the result of antioxidant compounds. So, by eating a “rainbow” of brightly colored fruits, vegetables and herbs, we are providing the body with a wide variety of protective antioxidants.
While it’s true that we can get isolated antioxidants from supplements, these are not nearly as effective as whole food antioxidants. Here’s why. Remember the apple and the vitamin C water we talked about on page one? Putting slices of apples in water with vitamin C inhibits them from turning brown, but it won’t keep them fresh forever. That’s because antioxidants wear out.
When an antioxidant donates an electron to a free radical, it will remain stable for a while, but it is now missing an electron. Eventually, the antioxidant will destabilize and become a free radical itself, unless a more powerful antioxidant comes along and donates an electron to it. In other words, antioxidants need to be refreshed or recycled.
Nature does this by pairing multiple antioxidants together. For example, in plants, vitamin C is always found in combination with bioflavonoids. Bioflavonoids are also antioxidants, which help to replenish vitamin C. So, the vitamin C in rose hips, oranges and other foods has a more powerful effect on health than isolated vitamin C, because the other nutrients found with it act synergistically to protect the body.
So, let’s take a look at some of these colorful nutrients that keep free radicals in check and discover where they are naturally found. You’ll see why eating the rainbow makes good nutritional sense.
Xanth is Latin for yellow, which is why yellow-colored anti-oxidants have names like violaxanthin, betaxanthin and zeaxanthin. Violaxanthin is universally found in green leaves and is also found in many yellow vegetables. It has anticancer properties and is part of why eating green, leafy vegetables helps prevent cancer.
Beta is the Latin name for beets, so betaxanthin is an antioxidant that gives yellow beets their color. Its highest source, however, is an herb (also a common garden weed) called purslane.
Zea is Latin for corn, so zeaxanthin is a major pigment in yellow corn. Zeaxanthin is also found in orange peppers and leafy vegetables like spinach, kale and collard greens.
Zeaxanthin and an antioxidant pigment called lutein, are extremely important antioxidants for the eyes. The name lutein comes from the Latin lutea, a word for the color saffron (a yellow-orange color). Both zeaxanthin and lutein are essential for the health of the macula at the back of the eye. The portion of the macula where light falls on the eye is colored yellow by these two pigments, which is why it is called the macula lutea (lutea again meaning saffron yellow). These antioxidant pigments protect the eye from ultraviolet (UV) radiation damage, which can help to prevent macular degeneration, a common cause of blindness. Both of these yellow antioxidants are found in the formula Perfect Eyes, a combination of antioxidant nutrients to protect the eyes.
By the way, in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) it was noted that eye health and liver health are related. This is because the eyes and the liver use more antioxidant nutrients than any other parts of the body. Nearly all degenerate eye diseases such as retinopathy, glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts are due to oxidative damage to the eyes. However, if the eyes don’t have enough antioxidants, then the liver doesn’t either. So, if you have eye problems, your liver also needs support.
Many orange-colored foods, such as carrots, apricots, peaches and sweet potatoes, get their color from carotenes or carotenoids. These precursors to vitamin A are also found in collards, kale, spinach, pumpkins, chard, winter squash and tomatoes. They are powerful antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic compounds. They help to protect the health of the lungs, eyes, cardiovascular system and the skin.
Carotenoid Blend contains a blend of both beta-carotene and alpha-carotene, plus lutein and zeaxanthin, mentioned above. It also contains lycopene, cryptoxanthin, phytoene, phytofluence and astaxanthin. The standard dose is one capsule three times daily.
Two more orange pigments with antioxidant properties are cryptoxanthin (which is found in oranges, peaches, mangos, papaya and tangerines) and curcumin from turmeric. Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant that reduces inflammation, protecting the liver, brain and cardiovascular system from damage. It inhibits cancer cell formation, stimulates bile production, aids liver detoxification and helps the body fight infection. It is also helpful for reducing pain associated with inflammation in osteoarthritis and other chronic inflammatory diseases. CurcuminBP is a concentrated extract of this compound from turmeric with black pepper to aid its absorption.
One of the most well-known red pigments is the antioxidant lycopene. Lycopene makes tomatoes red and is also found in guava, watermelon, pink grapefruit and dried apricots. Research suggests that lycopene may help prevent cancer, especially cancers of the prostate, lung and stomach. Lycopene is an important ingredient in Men’s Formula, which helps protect prostate health, but it is also found in Brain-Protex, an antioxidant blend for protecting brain tissue from free radical damage. Brain Protex is a good antioxidant supplement for people who want to avoid losing their memory and mental ability as they age.
Red peppers contain the antioxidants capsanthin and capsorubin. These are very stable antioxidants derived from violaxanthin as peppers ripen, and contribute to the health benefits of capsicum.
Anthocyanins are red antioxidants which change color with pH. They are pink or red in an acidic environment and then turn blue in an alkaline environment. In plants, they are “blue blockers,” filtering out ultra-violet (UV) light and protecting tissues from UV damage. Bright light stimulates anthocyanin production in plants. These anti-inflammatory compounds are found in cranberries, blood oranges, red apples, red onions, red cabbage and red wine.
Blue and Purple Antioxidants
Blueberries and bilberries are rich in blue-colored anthocyanins. These antioxidant compounds have become famous for their ability to improve night vision and protect blood vessels from inflammation. Bilberries, a key ingredient in Perfect Eyes, are used to strengthen veins and capillaries and to protect the eyes.
Purple anthocyanins give color to eggplants, grapes, elderberries and black currents. Found in combination with these purple compounds are colorless antioxidant nutrients called proanthocyanidins. Proanthocyanidins are condensed tannins (tannins create astringency in herbs) that are potent antioxidants. Proanthocyanidins are found in red wine, grape skins and seeds, elderberries, blueberries, cranberries, hawthorn, ginkgo and green tea.
The most famous of these compounds are oligomeric proanthoyanidins or OPCs for short. These short chains of flavonols such as catechin are found in pine bark and grape seeds. They are available in the formulas Grapine with Protectors and High Potency Grapine and have been used for arthritis, auto-immune disorders, macular degeneration and protection from environmental toxins.
As you can see, the rainbow of beautiful colors in fruits and vegetables is not just pleasing to the eye, it’s also a sign of their health-protecting abilities. So, protect your health by eating 5-7 portions of these antioxidant powerhouses daily and using antioxidant supplements (when appropriate) for specific health needs.