When you go grocery shopping, you probably see lots of foods and supplements that claim they contain antioxidants. Sure, it sounds good, but what do antioxidants actually do for us?
Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that can protect and repair our cells from damage caused by free radicals. What does that mean for you and your spine? Let’s discuss.
What are free radicals, and why are they bad for us?
Free radicals are molecules that are missing an electron in the outer shell. To fill those missing electrons, free radicals may sometimes take electrons from other cellular structures in the body, resulting in damage to those cells. These damaged cells can create a foundation for disease and chronic conditions as they grow and reproduce abnormally. One free radical may not be a problem, but free radicals often set off a chain reaction that damages multiple cells. That cellular damage can result in several different conditions, including cancer, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Free radicals can also cause damage to the bones and soft tissues in the body, which may contribute to fractures and arthritis throughout the body, including the spine.
The body naturally generates a small amount of free radicals during normal cell functions, but this is generally not a problem because the body can keep these free radicals under control. However, there are certain environmental factors that can trigger the body to produce more free radicals. Toxins in the air, such as cigarette smoke and air pollution, are a major factor in free radical production. Excessive consumption of alcohol can also trigger our bodies to produce more free radicals. Our food and water can sometimes contain pesticides and other toxins, which may trigger free radical production as well.
Do antioxidants really help?
Antioxidants work to stop the damage caused by free radicals by either preventing or stopping a chain reaction. Antioxidants naturally occur in the body and can help offset the free radicals generated by normal cellular functions. However, if we are constantly exposed to free radicals from external sources, such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, or excessive alcohol use, our bodies may not produce enough antioxidants to counteract the effects. This means we need to get antioxidants from outside sources.
Does this mean you should stock up on supplements? Not necessarily. There are several substances that can act as antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, coenzyme Q-10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, polyphenols, and many more. While many of these substances are available in the form of supplements, there isn’t much research to support the claim that these supplements actually help counteract the negative effects of free radicals. However, we can get these same substances through the foods we eat. What’s more, these foods are already recommended by experts as part of a healthy diet. If you eat the right foods, you’re already on the right track.
How can you get antioxidants?
A healthy diet is an important part of spine health–in addition to providing antioxidants to fight off free radicals, the right foods can also help you maintain a healthy weight and provide the nutrients your spine needs to stay healthy.
Ideally, you need to have a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet to get the antioxidants and nutrients you need. Each antioxidant works in different areas of the body, so it is important to get different types of antioxidants to counteract free radicals. Fruits and vegetables like broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, berries, cauliflower, kale, oranges, and strawberries all contain antioxidants, but there are many more. Seafood, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, and whole grains can also contain antioxidants. Don’t just stick to a few antioxidant-containing foods, though–for the best mix of antioxidants, you need a variety of healthy foods.
You do need antioxidants, but as with most vitamins and minerals, it’s always better to get them from your diet than a supplement.