Why are antioxidants so important as we age?

Jan 20, 2012 by

To understand why anti-oxidants are so important we need to know about ‘free radicals’. Yes they really are called that although it sounds more like a political extremist group. Free radicals are unstable, electronic particles that damage cell walls, blood vessel walls, joints and other intracellular components. In particular they damage collagen which is the essential protein that keeps your skins elasticity. We tend to lose collagen as we grow older which causes wrinkles and sagging skin so we do not want any more damage done to our collagen by free radicals.

To a degree we cannot avoid free radicals as they are formed when we are exposed to certain environmental factors like pollution, cigarette smoke, chemicals (as in highly processed food), viruses, alcohol etc. They are also formed when we convert food to energy. Within our skin the free radicals keep on reproducing which leads to more rapid ageing. So what can we do to protect ourselves from these ravagers?

This is where anti-oxidants provide some form of protection. Antioxidants are our defense mechanism that hunt down and neutralise the free radicals. They help prevent and reduce cell damage and other degenerative diseases and slow down the ageing process. There are different substances that act as antioxidants such as vitamins, minerals, enzymes and amino acids. Research has shown that the most effective are vitamins A, C, E and selenium.

Where can we get these vitamins and how much should we take?

Vitamin E
Vitamin E was the first vitamin where scientists recognised the antioxidant effect, however, it is really important to know that only natural forms of vitamin E are useful. There are synthetic forms of vitamin E on the market – don’t waste your money on those if you are after the antioxidant effect of vitamin E. Look for the word ’natural’ in the label or the chemical name d-tocopherol to be sure. Other benefits of vitamin E may be in strengthening our immune system. For fresh sources look to wheatgerm, almonds,oils and nuts. Scroll down for full table of sources and daily requirement.

Some scientific research is indicating that antioxidants may also prevent or help fight cancer, in particular skin, breast and colon cancer.

Vitamin A
Vitamin A is formed in our bodies from retinol which is obtained from two sources, animal or vegetable. Animal products such as milk and liver provide retinol which is converted into retinal (vitamin A) or alternatively colourful vegetables contain carotenoids which are also converted into retinol. However there are lots of different types of carotenoids and beta-carotene is by far the most effective in being converted to vitamin A. So raw vegetable juices are wonderfully good for us as we age. If you consume too much it is possible for your skin to turn a slightly yellow or bronze colour but you would have to take an awful lot for this to happen. It is harmless and will soon fade if you reduce your intake of beta-carotene rich vegetables like carrots. Best sources are carrots (either juice, raw or cooked), sweet potato and spinach. Scroll down for full table of sources and daily requirement.

Vitamin C
Vitamin E works on the fatty parts of your body such as cell membranes whereas vitamin C helps to maintain the collagen production in our skin and bones. Vitamin C also help with healing our wounds which as we all know can take longer when we are older. It is a water soluble compound found mostly in oranges, red peppers, kiwifruit and grapefruits.

Recent research is showing that age related macular degeneration and cataracts may be helped by vitamin C and other antioxidants. In addition vitamin C can help with the common cold. There is no evidence to support taking vitamin C to prevent catching a cold but it does seem to make the effect shorter or milder. I always take vitamin C supplements at the first sign of a cold and i am convinced it helps me recover quicker and have less severe symptoms. The best sources of vitamin c are fruit and vegetables but a daily supplement can also help. If you do take vitamin C in tablet form you may find taking it in calcium ascorbate form which is more easily digested but also provides additional calcium for menopausal women. Scroll down for full table of sources and daily requirement.

Finally the fourth most important free radical fighter is selenium. Selenium is an important trace mineral which produces an enzyme in our bodies that reduces free radical damage to cell membranes and proteins and also our DNA. We only need small amounts of selenium and one of the most important sources is brazil nuts. Interestingly location plays a part with selenium. For example, researchers know that soils in the high plains of northern Nebraska and the Dakotas have very high levels of selenium. Although selenium can be taken in supplement form the best form is organic. I often grab two or three brazil nuts to munch on when I’m feeling a bit hungry between meals. Scroll down for full table of sources and daily requirement.

To summarise: We need help from antioxidants to fight the ageing free radicals that are all around us. The best way to boost our anti-ageing processes is to eat plenty of raw fruits, vegetables and nuts and avoid highly processed foods. Stop smoking if you are a smoker and all of us should try to avoid polluted environments as much as possible.
vitamin E sources and daily requirement table

As approved by the Office of Dietary Supplements, US National Institute of Health

Vitamin A sources and daily requirements table

As approved by the Office of Dietary Supplements, US National Institute of Health

vitamin C sources and daily requirement table

As approved by the Office of Dietary Supplements, US National Institute of Health

selenium sources and daily requirement table

As approved by the Office of Dietary Supplements, US National Institute of Health

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