If you’ve been to a health food store, you’ve undoubtedly heard of antioxidants and their power to do everything from prevent cell damage to improve skin health and prevent cancers.
The truth about antioxidants and what they do for our health is less black and white. To truly understand the health benefits of antioxidants, you must understand what they are and how they work.
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals that protect our cells from damage. Occurring naturally in plants, fruits, teas and vegetables, they’re also available through manmade supplements. They’re an important part of the diet as they reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, both of which have been linked to brain aging and neurodegenerative disorders.
Most notably, antioxidants combat the damage created by free radicals, a common name for the unstable molecules that negatively impact the structure of cells in the body. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by giving them electrons. Free radicals occur naturally and attach to other molecules, causing them to function abnormally. This includes cells in the brain.
What Can Antioxidants Do?
The type of antioxidant matters a great deal as each tends to be different and perform different functions. For example, the carotenoid lutein has been shown to be a valuable antioxidant in its ability to preserve memory, while vitamin K reduces inflammation in cells.
In the end, a balance of various antioxidants is an essential part of any healthy diet. Too much of some antioxidants can actually have negative impacts on health, which is one reason that some supplements may not necessarily encouraged for those who eat a diet that includes sufficient fruit and vegetables. For example, an excess of beta carotene can increase risk of premature death.
Of the most important antioxidants, vitamin C, E and zinc have some of the biggest effects on brain health. Studies show Vitamin C, also known as ascorbate, plays an important role in reducing oxidative stress and creating mature, fully functioning neurons in the brain. Neurodegenerative diseases often involve high levels of oxidative stress, meaning Vitamin C can play a therapeutic role in preventing ischemic stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Vitamin E has been shown to be of extreme value to the brain as a study from the journal Nutrients suggests that it protects cells from damage caused by free radicals. The study also notes that high vitamin E levels are associated with improved cognitive performance.
Zinc plays an important part in the development of the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with spatial relationships, long term memory and emotional regulation. Low levels of zinc are associated with increased risk of depression.
Antioxidants play an important part in our health, but getting them from the right sources and in the right amounts plays a vital role in healthy aging. To ensure that you are getting the right amounts, the best thing to do is to leave it to nature to provide through a proper diet. By doing so, you reduce the risk of age-related neurodegenerative diseases and ensure that your diet is supportive of healthy cognitive aging as well as physical aging.