Antioxidants are a health-industry buzzword now that the global shift towards healthier eating is picking up speed.
Sometimes it seems you can barely move in a supermarket for products claiming to be rich in antioxidants. Cereal bars, green teas, energy drinks and even chocolates are marketed as immunity-boosting and the so-called ‘superfood’ market is heavily promoted. There’s also been an influx of supplements claiming to improve antioxidant and immunity levels.
And since COVID-19 struck, 45 per cent of global consumers are turning to food and drink products that claim to boost their immune systems.¹
But what exactly are antioxidants and are they the magic bullet we’d like to believe?
Antioxidants vs free radicals
In a nutshell, antioxidants work to neutralize free radicals. These are unstable molecules that can damage cells and lead to diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, as well as faster aging.
Free radicals are produced naturally by the body but lifestyle factors such as smoking, air pollution, a poor diet, overexposure to sunlight and even over-exercising can boost their numbers to unhealthy levels.
The potential impact can be serious, as Vivienne Talsmat, a London-based clinical nutritionist, food formulator and anti-aging specialist explains: “When bacteria and viruses invade the body, the immune system springs into action, activating an army of free radicals that at first benefit the body by destroying pathogens and damaged cells.
“But if the free radicals become too prolific they start destroying healthy cells. A supply of antioxidants keeps the immune system at an equilibrium by stabilizing free radicals.”
The body has its own defence mechanism to fight these pesky marauders, but we can also get help from the food we eat. Enter the mighty antioxidant. Antioxidants are self-sacrificing warriors that come to the rescue by modifying and stabilizing the free radicals.
Where can we find immunity-boosting antioxidants?
The body’s own antioxidants can be best supplemented naturally with the food we eat. Some of the most effective immunity-boosting antioxidants include: vitamins C/D/E, selenium, beta-carotene, manganese, zinc, glutathione, alpha-lipoic acid, Co-Q-10 and astaxanthin. These can be found in meats and fish, but are more commonly sourced from fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, such as:
Fruits: apples, bananas, pineapple, apricots, watermelons, kiwi and pomegranates
Berries: grapes, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blackcurrants, cherries, and goji berries
Green leafy vegetables: broccoli, spinach, Brussel sprouts and kale
Root vegetables: beetroots, tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, ginger, and turmeric
Nuts: almonds, walnuts, pecans and chestnuts
Can antioxidants be harmful?
“Yes,” says Vivienne. “As with anything, the law of diminishing return applies and you will get less and less benefit after a certain point so overloading the body on antioxidants is not recommended.”
The body also requires balance. As harmful as excessive free radicals might be, they do play a positive role in how our bodies function. Some research even indicates that free radicals could actually be protecting cells from becoming cancerous. If we overdose on antioxidants, they’ll start to interfere in this process and prevent them from doing their job.
Higher concentrations of antioxidants can also reduce the health benefits of exercise, protect dangerous cells, such as cancer cells, as well as healthy cells, increase oxidation and have unpleasant side effects such as nausea and headaches. In a worst-case scenario, they can reach toxic levels.
Are supplements effective?
In short, no. The US-based National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has broken down clinical studies and has found supplements to be ineffective at preventing disease. In fact, research has shown that taking high doses of supplements can actually lead to potential health risks including an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers and prostate cancer in men if they take too much beta-carotene and vitamin E respectively. There is also concern that antioxidant supplements may react with certain medicines.
However, according to Vivienne, whose celebrity clients include actress Alice Eve and UK TV personality Trinny Woodall, some can be effective. “I am not a fan of most supplements as often they are not readily absorbable by the digestive system and as a result pass out of the body through waste,” she says. “The good ones are produced with natural foods, which means they are easily absorbed and utilised by the body. These are labelled ‘food-state supplements’ . All my own products are food-state for this very reason.”
The consensus nevertheless remains that people should prioritise consuming antioxidants through healthy eating.
There is no quick fix to ward off disease and keep immunity levels stable. What we do know is that antioxidants are vital in maintaining a healthy body and the best way to supplement our natural resource is by keeping a nutritious, balanced diet and staying active.
Antioxidant-rich smoothie recipes
Whizz the ingredients of each of these together and enjoy!
Sharon fruit and banana
– 250ml coconut or almond milk
– 1 avocado
– 1 Sharon fruit/persimmon
– 1 banana
– Pinch of cinnamon
Fruits of the forest
– 250ml coconut or almond milk
– Handful of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries
– Slice of fresh ginger
– ½ tsp of honey
A Taste of more
– 250ml hazelnut or almond milk
– Handful of blueberries
– 1 passionfruit
– ½ tsp of honey
Vivienne Talsmat is a leading London health and beauty guru, consulted by celebrities, royalty and sports personalities alike. She is an expert in treating the signs of aging, and the mastermind of the transformative 28-day Detox Plan.