Antioxidant Foods Vs Supplements For InflammationOct 06, 2023
What are antioxidants, why are they important and where can you find them?
Antioxidants are just that: they fight (anti) oxidation. They're some of nature’s most important superheroes.
Oxidation is a chemical process when a molecule loses electrons and creates free radicals. Oxidation is also the reason why apples, bananas, and avocados go brown when the skin is broken and they're exposed to air - they're getting oxidized.
Free radicals in the body cause inflammation and can contribute to diseases like cancers, diabetes, and heart disease (to name a few), so, the antidote to oxidation is the antioxidant.
Vitamins like vitamins A, C, D, E, zinc and selenium are examples of antioxidants (ACES+ zinc). So are other compounds in foods like carotenoids and phenols. These compounds sacrifice their electrons to stop the oxidation process. This is why squirting some lemon juice on your sliced apples, bananas and avocados slows down the browning process. Or how the high selenium content in fish binds with heavy metals to protect the body.
But don’t think that all oxidation in the body is bad. It’s not. Your body naturally oxidizes compounds all the time when it’s doing healthy things like metabolizing nutrients or exercising.
As with many things in life and health, the key is maintaining a good balance, especially when you have chronic illness. In this case, it's the balance between oxidation and anti-oxidation and making sure you’re eating enough nutrient dense foods to fuel the healing process as the body breaks down tissues and tries to rebuild.
We can throw off that balance with exposure to too much alcohol, smoking, or environmental pollutants. Even over-exercising or too much sun exposure can create too much oxidation. Autoimmune and chronic inflammation can also fuel the production or reactive oxygen species, produced during cellular metabolism and can contribute to additional oxidative stress in the body.
The best sources of antioxidants to combat this effect are nutritious whole foods, like colourful fresh produce, e.g., blueberries, purple cabbage, etc. In fact, the more colourful and darker the plant is, the higher levels of antioxidants it usually has. Chemicals that give the plants their deep colours are often the antioxidants themselves.
Antioxidants in food
Let me list out a bunch of antioxidants and the foods they’re found in:
- Vitamin A - Found in liver, dark leafy greens (e.g., kale), orange fruits and veggies (e.g., mangoes, carrots & squashes)
- Vitamin C - Found in bell peppers, citrus, berries, and leafy greens
- Vitamin E - Found in leafy greens, nuts (e.g., walnuts), and seeds (e.g., sunflowers)
- Vitamin D - Found in fatty fish and fish liver oil (although not in high amounts)
- Zinc - Found in fish, shellfish, red meat, pumpkin seeds
- Selenium - Found in fish, Brazil nuts and pork
- Carotenoids (e.g., beta-carotene, lycopene, etc.) - Found in tomatoes, carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, and salmon
- Phenols - Found in green tea, black tea, coffee, cocoa, red wine, and berries
Not surprisingly, many of these foods are recommended for helping to fight inflammation with autoimmune, although those with autoimmune can be sensitive to nightshades (peppers, tomatoes), caffeine and wine.
Blueberries are probably one of the most studied antioxidant foods. They contain a range of phytochemical (i.e., plant chemical) compounds and are very high in anthocyanins - the blue-coloured compound). The antioxidant capacity can be measured in a laboratory; this is called the "oxygen radical absorption capacity," or "ORAC." And blueberries have one of the highest ORAC levels.
In fact, in 2015, there was an arthritis study of 200 Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis patients taking Etanercept (a biologic). Half were given 50mL of blueberry juice daily and the other half a placebo juice. Six months later, there was clinically meaningful improvement in JIA symptoms and markers for inflammation (link below).
ANOTHER FUN FACT: Some studies estimate that the highest source of antioxidants in the average American diet is NOT from berries, it's from coffee! Can you imagine how much better (and healthier) people would feel if they added a few more servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables to their days?
Antioxidant Foods vs. Supplements
When it comes to food and supplements, there is so much controversy. Despite the fact that our soil is not as rich as it used to be, compared with eating a nutrient-dense antioxidant-rich colourful array of plants, antioxidant supplements have fallen short, in some studies.
This is why I’m a food first nutritionist. I spend the bulk of my time making food easy, so we don’t have to feel like we need to spend hours in the kitchen everyday.
And while supplements can definitely help address imbalances in the body and GAPS in our diet, food will outperform supplements each and every time.
That said, I find that most of my clients (when we first meet) don't eat nearly enough of nutrient-dense foods that they need on a daily basis. And truth be told, my family isn't perfect either which is why each of our family members have our own supplement regime. This doesn't mean that we're doing a bad job ... it simply means we're human, living busy lives and aren't perfect!
When it comes to supplementation, there a few things to keep in mind.
Some amazing go-to antioxidants are contraindicated with certain medications, conditions or symptoms, as in the case of fish oil and blood pressure medication. The wrong form of magnesium, another antioxidant that the body uses in excess when we are physically or emotionally stressed, can send a person running to the bathroom (i.e., magnesium oxide and citrate have laxative effects).
And overdoing it on supplements can also lead to health problems.
Too much of any individual antioxidant can be harmful. For example, too much vitamin A is linked to increased risk of hip fractures and prostate cancer. Too much beta-carotene increases the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Too much vitamin E increases the risk of prostate cancer, lung infections, heart failure, and even death.
Another reason why antioxidant foods might work better than antioxidant supplements is because of synergy.
The concept of synergy means that by taking one component out of healthful food (i.e., the antioxidant), it loses the effect it had when it was combined with all the other beneficial components found in food. This is the difference between eating a whole orange and taking a vitamin C supplement. The orange is going to have more than just vitamin C, and many of those compounds will work together for overall health better than just isolating one and having higher-than-normal doses of it.
What about fibre? Fibre that comes with the food is designed to pick up and remove waste and toxins with lowers the inflammatory load (oxidative stress). This is a much better approach for overall health versus following a low fibre diet or one high in processed foods and depending on supplements to save you.
And finally, there is the matter of quality.
Like a good pair of shoes, quality supplements will take you further. They may cost more, but they will serve your body better (like putting a higher grade gasoline into a Ferrari). A reputable and professional-grade supplement will consider the form and bioavailability of their ingredients AND include essential co-factors for higher absorption so you're not peeing them out.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of companies that market poor quality products or use forms of supplements that are poorly absorbed by the body because they’re cheaper and the manufacturer can make a larger profit.
Choose your supplements wisely. Walgreens or Costco brands may not be the best for what you’re trying to achieve … getting back to balance.
If you need help in creating a nutrition and supplements plan to help you achieve a specific goal, don’t be afraid to reach out and schedule a free call to discuss your situation. If I’m not able to help, I’ll refer you to someone better suited.
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