Antioxidants: What are they and why do we need them?

Antioxidants. We hear about them all the time. From Universities, to the BBC, we hear about antioxidants in foods, in beauty products, in creams- but what are they, and why are they so important? Read on to find all about antioxidants and why we need them.


What are they?

Antioxidants are a behaviour, a type of chemical. They can be both naturally occurring and man-made. Any compound that is able to give electrons and offset free radicals has antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are preventers, or delayers, of cell damage.

Antioxidants are naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables, marine plants and seafood that eat marine plants. There are thousands of anti-oxidant compounds but the most common compounds are vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene and lycopene. Antioxidants can also be made artificially and consumed in supplement form.


How do they work?

Oxidation creates free radicals that break up atoms, mixing up and changing cell structures. This cell mutation has been linked to diseases such as cancer, stroke, diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. Antioxidants work by preventing the chain reaction, or domino effect, caused by the free radicals. The antioxidants are there to donate electrons to stabilise free radicals so that they do not steal the electrons from nearby cells, and therefore do not change their cell structure. They can also help repair cell damage that has already been caused by the free radicals.

In simpler terms: imagine that you cut a slice of apple. After a while, the apple slice turns brown, due to oxidation. The apple is now rancid. This is the natural process of oxidation. Antioxidants help to slow down this process, or prevent this process from happening, in your body, on your skin and in your cosmetic products.


Why do we need them?

We need antioxidants to fight for our body, and prevent us from developing life threatening diseases. Antioxidants can protect our body from, and help repair already existing, heart problems, eye problems, memory issues, immune system problems and mood disorders. These antioxidant powers have been subject to test and trial time and again, their benefits have been reported by many institutions, including the NHS:

An “antioxidant-rich diet ‘cuts heart attack risk’’…older women who ate “seven fruit and vegetable portions a day were between 20 and 29 per cent less likely to have a heart attack over a decade than those who ate just 2.4 [portions]”.

This news is based on a large study that included more than 30,000 women who were free of heart disease. The researchers asked participants about their diets and looked at whether they had a heart attack over the following 10 years. The researchers also estimated the amount of antioxidants in the women’s diets and whether this was associated with their risk of having a heart attack.

They found that women who had the highest levels of antioxidants in their diets (those who ate six or more portions of fresh fruit and vegetables a day) were 20% less likely to suffer a heart attack over 10 years compared with women who ate the lowest levels.

Antioxidants are also great cosmetically. There is some evidence to suggest that they may actually reverse the effects of aging by improving skin health and rejuvenating it’s appearance. Antioxidants are especially effective in eye creams and moisturisers, and Coenzyme Q-10 is one anti oxidant that we see a lot in skin-toning products. They even work as a scar treatment. Scar tissue has a different cell structure to healthy skin, being rigid and firm. Many types of antioxidants will increase blow flow to the scar tissue, and help the scar to blend in with the development of new skin. These treatments are usually available as gels and creams.


Where can we find them?

Naturally occurring antioxidants can be found in healthy foods, also often referred to as superfoods. Here are some of the most antioxidant rich edible delights:

  • Blackberries
  • Walnuts
  • Strawberries
  • Cranberries
  • Coffee (brewed)
  • Raspberries
  • Blueberries
  • Ground Cloves
  • Pecans
  • Artichoke Hearts

For more information and to explore the topic of healthy eating in more detail, you can visit NHS Choices.