You’ve all probably heard of “antioxidants” and how they are good for you because… wait, why exactly?
The very short answer is that they help get bad stuff out of your body. That bad stuff is oxidization, hence the term antioxidant.
But what does that actually mean? How does oxidation happen? What causes it? What does it do to you? And what can you do about it? These are the questions that will be answered here today.
You don’t really need to be that familiar with chemistry to understand the concept of by-products, right? You can easily just understand it metaphorically. Every chemical process has a byproduct. Every change in the state of matter has a by-product. Just like when your car burns gas, it creates carbon monoxide that is sent outwards through the tailpipe. Just like when you cook bacon in a frying pan, there is a bunch of grease in the pan afterwards. These are byproducts.
Every chemical process in your body has a byproduct as well. When elements and molecules combine, something is released during the process.
One of the most common processes in the body is oxidation. Various, probably countless, chemical processes result in oxidation, which is basically when a molecule, atom or ion loses an electron during a chemical process.
The issue is that when a molecule, atom or ion loses an electron, it wants to correct the balance so it goes through the body, looking for something with an extra electron it can attach itself.
This little wandering atom, molecule or ion is called a “free radical.” Sounds like an anarchist or bohemian doesn’t it? It’s a politically-charged, free-spirited little particle. In a sense, that’s a good metaphor.
The problem with free radicals is that they are unstable. They are in a state of radioactive decay where they give off dangerous byproducts themselves simply by existing in your body.
They can attach themselves to other molecules, atoms, ions, tissues, cells, etc. in your body because their missing electron makes them act a little bit like a magnet. When they attach to something and continue their radioactive decay, they cause damage. They cause damage in several ways, but one of the scariest is damage they can do to the actual DNA in your cells.
In some cases, they damage the cell in such a way that it replicates without any sort of stop procedures. This unconsciously replicating cell process is what we call cancer.
Another result of oxidization and free radicals is inflammation. Your body sees these free radicals as a threat and builds an immune response against them.
While your body thinks it’s doing the right thing in the short term when it inflames the tissue around a threat, over the long term this leads to more than 70 chronic conditions that plague Americans every day–things like heart disease, arthritis, fibromyalgia, Type II diabetes, things like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, lupus, MS, and so many more.
The body can neutralize and get rid of free radicals to a point. But there does come a time when the body is overwhelmed and simply unable to handle the sheer amount of oxidization and free radicals that consume our modern world. This is called oxidative stress, and most of us are either approaching this point or we are there already.
So why are so many people in a state of oxidative stress? Because we live in a toxic world. Every time you breathe in car exhaust, free radicals are created. Every time you are excessively stressed out, free radicals are created. Every time you are exposed to radiation—even an x-ray or Wi-Fi signal or cell signal or airport scanner—free radicals are created. Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, eating foods covered in pesticides, over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs, sunburns, mold exposure—all of these things create free radicals in your body.
It’s just too much for our bodies to handle on their own. Back in pre-Industrial times, before factory farms and air pollution, we could just sort of process the minimal harmful toxins around us. Maybe the worst it got was eating some meat that was too old, or standing around the campfire. Nowadays, the toxic load is just too high and we have to start taking matters into our own hands.
That’s where antioxidants come in.
The antioxidant solution
Remember how free radicals are missing an electron so they wander around the body looking for some tissue or cell with extra electrons they can attach themselves to? Well, the way antioxidants help is that THEY wander around the body giving away electrons. Once the free radical gets that electron it has been yearning for, it just becomes a harmless, extra atom, ion or molecule with nothing to do and the body eventually gets rid of it somehow.
So, in today’s modern toxic world, you’ve got to counterbalance all of the oxidative stress with a steady stream of antioxidants.
I’m sure you’ve been perusing the grocery store and seen labels on a bag of carrots with something along the lines of “High in Antioxidants.”
But did you know, carrots, while they do have antioxidants, aren’t really all that high in them. There is actually a score you can use to measure antioxidant content in foods. It’s called the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, or ORAC for short.
This measurement was developed by the National Institute of Aging and the National Institutes of Health. It is measured by placing a sample of a high-antioxidant food together with molecules that are sensitive to oxidation, together with molecules that generate free radicals. After a certain period of time, the researchers come back and measure how well the oxidation-sensitive molecules were protected by the antioxidant food molecules.
My recommendation is to eat at least one food every day with a very high ORAC score. And really, the more the better. This sort of consistency should keep you fairly well protected from oxidative stress, even though there are several other things that would help you detox that are non food-related.
So if you look at foods with high ORAC scores, it’s very enlightening to see what comes up at the top.
Just to give you some perspective, green tea is generally considered to be very high in antioxidants. So are carrots. But I want you to start thinking about some numbers here.
A cup of green tea has an ORAC score of 1,253. Sounds pretty high, right? And a carrot has an ORAC score of 697.
But in the grand scheme of things, these are incredibly low ORAC scores. The highest level of antioxidants you will find in any food in the world is the sap of a South American tree called Croton lechleri (pictured above). The sap is a deep red and it’s nicknamed “Dragon’s blood.” It’s ORAC score is 2,897,110. That’s almost 3 million compared to green tea’s little 1200.
This stuff isn’t easy to get, and there is some debate as to whether it has other dangerous side effects, so don’t necessarily go looking for it and gulping it down every morning with your breakfast. The top five highest ORAC scores are relatively difficult things to find and consume.
We start getting into more accessible foods at ORAC scores of 290,283—which is ground cloves. Again, compare this to green tea, which is often touted as one of the world’s most powerful antioxidants. Well how about a cup of green tea with ground cloves in it?
In fact, most of the top 20 ORAC scores are spices, including oregano, rosemary, peppermint leaves, thyme, cinnamon, turmeric, vanilla bean spice and sage spice.
Sure, you can add these spices to your food and drink when appropriate, but let’s get into what foods you can eat for a snack or with dinner that have extremely high ORAC scores. You start getting into foods at about the 50,000 mark. And you are probably going to be pleasantly surprised to learn that actual food with the highest ORAC score is cocoa and dark chocolate. Dark baking chocolate that is unsweetened has an ORAC score of 49,944.
Wild blueberries are great as well, with a score of 48,320. Black raspberries are 19,220. Pecans are 17,940. Walnuts – 13,540. Cranberries – 9,090. Black beans – 8,494. Jalepeno peppers – 8250. Lentils 7282. Artichokes – 6552.
You get the idea. If you really want to dive in, check out this website. You can search through 500 different foods and see their ORAC scores. It’s pretty useful and you could maybe use it to plan your weekly meals. Think about a certain spice or food that you could add to every meal that has a high ORAC score and include it.
That being said, you are not completely powerless when it comes to the toxicity around you. Don’t smoke or eat processed foods. This will go a long way in minimizing oxidative stress.
Also, and this is HUGE. If you connect to the Earth, and I mean walk around in the dirt and grass and sand with your bare feet, you discharge protons and gain electrons, which helps neutralize free radicals. It’s the same concept as when you build up static electricity in your body then discharge it when you touch a doorknob.
Most people, by wearing shoes, only walking barefoot indoors, etc. don’t actually touch the Earth. Think about it? When’s the last time you made skin-to-Earth contact? For some people, it can be months! Just get out every day and touch the earth in some way. It helps get rid of those free radicals.
And eat high-antioxidant foods. You won’t regret it.