July is National Blueberry Month, so I thought in order to celebrate, I would talk about one of the reasons blueberries are so awesome: antioxidants. There’s always so much talk about antioxidants and why we need them, but a lot of people do not understand what they really are and where they come from. There are a million commercials, articles, and gurus telling you that you need them, but what are they? Their main purpose is to prevent oxidation reactions within our bodies that remain unchecked after they have completed their “assigned” task. Antioxidants have the ability to repair cells that have sustained stress or damage from free radical destruction, as well as protect cells from being damaged at all. This is really important for our circulatory and nervous systems, which need to function at their best to maintain good health.
Antioxidants are molecules that include enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. These nutrients are the first line of defense in helping your body calm inflammation. Recent studies are showing that inflammation is the origin of many degenerative conditions; calming the inflammation can help prolong life and improve the quality of life on top of that. One of the reasons I always tell people to “Eat the Rainbow” is to give them a greater chance of consuming antioxidants on a larger scale. The more colorful your food is, the greater the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory power it has–colors such as greens, blues, purples, reds, oranges, and yellows. There are many ways to get your antioxidant properties and plants tend to be the best source. They either produce them or pull them up from the soil. One of the most powerful antioxidants is chlorophyll, the lovely green color on plants. Here’s where I geek out on how awesome plants are: the same substances that plants make to protect their own tissues is exactly what will protect us from excessive oxidative stress! How cool is that? Or is it just me?
It is really hard to get a pill that will provide everything that eating real food will. You can take specific ones to boost for a while, but it really isn’t going to do the same job as real, whole foods. These nutrients work synergistically, with each small amount of one contributing to the beneficial effects of others. Moving to a more plant-based diet (not completely vegetarian so don’t tune me out!) is key to achieving and maintaining good health. You need veggies, fruits, grains (some in the whole form), nuts and seeds, herbs, and spices to give our body the ability to deal with the stress we are under, whether that stress is physical, environmental, or oxidative.
There is a wide variety of antioxidants and more are being discovered all the time, but the truly go-to foods for antioxidants we need most are Vitamins A, C, E, and the minerals selenium and zinc. Let’s look at these a little closer.
Vitamin A is found in both plants and animals and this is where meat-eaters are going to love me: the best form is found in sustainably raised animal sources, called retinol. The form found in plants is actually a precursor called carotenes, which can be converted to Vitamin A in healthy individuals. Vitamin A helps develop strong bones, is critical to adrenal and steroid hormone synthesis, it strengthens the immune system, and helps fight aging (yay!!). The best way to get your Vitamin A is by eating cantaloupe, eggs, sweet potatoes, leafy greens, fish liver oil, liver, seafood, watermelon, and yellow and orange veggies. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is Females, 14 and older — 2,333 IU and Males, 14 and older — 3,000 IU.
Vitamin C is probably the most well-known vitamin there is. Everyone either knows to take it or is already taking it. It is widely known to help with viral and bacterial infections and overall boost the immune system. What you might not know is that it helps with heart disease, arthritis, aging, and the adrenals. It helps with cholesterol and triglycerides and helps improve blood sugar levels. Those are just as important as boosting your immune system. The best sources of Vitamin C in foods are broccoli, cherries, green peppers, leafy greens, strawberries, tomatoes, citrus fruits, and papaya. If you choose to supplement during times of illness, make sure it is coupled with its bioflavonoid, rosehip. It raises effectiveness. The RDA for females 19 and older — 75 mg and males, 19 and older — 90 mg. If you are dealing with an illness, moving to 1000 to 3000 mg is helpful.
Vitamin E is mostly pushed as a skin care item and if that is all you are using it for, you are missing out on some very beneficial aspects of the vitamin. It is immune building, it helps with heart disease, can slow the aging of brain cells, it helps with fatigue, helps with wound healing, as well as improve skin tone and texture. It works best in conjunction with Vitamin C and selenium. The best food sources are leafy greens, wheat germ, whole grains, organic soy, nuts and seeds. The RDA for males and females, 14 years and older — 15 mg.
Selenium is an often overlooked powerful antioxidant that is essential to proper thyroid function, it also has immune-stimulating properties, it works synergistically with E to protect against cholesterol accumulation, it enhances skin elasticity, and has its own anti-aging properties. The best food source is Brazil nuts, but you can also get it from crimini mushrooms, eggs, garlic, nutritional yeast, and seafood. The RDA for males and females, 14 years and older — 55 mcg.
The last antioxidant mineral I want to talk about is zinc. This is another mineral people tend to only associate with illness, however, zinc is found in over 200 enzymes in our bodies. 200! Zinc is considered a brain food that can help with mental disorders and promote mental alertness. It is also essential to the formation of insulin, helps accelerate healing, and can help enhance the sense of smell and taste in those who need it. It can also reverse defects in immune function related to aging, making it a key nutrient for the elderly. The best food sources are eggs, mushrooms, nutritional yeast, wheat germ, all seafood, turkey, legumes, and ginger root.
The RDA for females, 19 years and older — 8 mg and males, 14 years and older — 11 mg
I’ll conclude by reiterating that the best way to get the best source of antioxidants is from organic whole foods, supplementing only in times of need or to help fix a specific issue. Antioxidants are amazing things and are one of the most studied nutrients, for good reason. If you have any additional questions, please feel free to ask! I always love to talk about nutrients and what is best for you.
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