What are antioxidants?
It’s a catch- 22 for all living beings: We need food and air
to live, but scientists have learned that as our cells
metabolize nutrients and oxygen they create free
radicals that flood our bodies and eat away at cell
membranes. That oxidative stress is linked to everything from wrinkles to dementia to clogged arteries. In
essence, experts say, oxidative stress is why we age.
When you’re young and healthy, your body churns
out antioxidants to mop up free radicals. “Like a new
car, you have this remarkable array of catalytic
converters to clean up the byproducts of burning fuel,”
says Joe McCord, PhD, a pioneer in antioxidant
research from the University of Colorado, Denver. The
bad news, he says: The older you get, the weaker your
catalytic converters become.
At first, test-tube studies indicated that food-derived antioxidants could significantly bolster the
body’s defenses, gobbling up those circulating cell-destroyers. “For about 20 years that was the buzz: You
take vitamin E or C and it annihilates free radicals,” says
McCord. But it turns out the equation is not so simple.
Max out antioxidant power
1) Focus on “indirect” antioxidants, which
fuel your body’s own antioxidant production.
For sulforaphane, eat broccoli and broccoli
sprouts, brussels sprouts, and other cruciferous
vegetables. For curcumin, use the curry spice
turmeric, or take a supplement. Licorice, shallots,
tonka beans, and the herbs milk thistle and
ashwagandha also contain powerful antioxidants.
2) Avoid megadoses of single “direct” antioxidants,
like vitamins C or E. In excess, they can backfire
and promote more free radical production.
3) Take antioxidants in combination. They have
a synergistic effect.
4) Steam your vegetables: It enhances their
Indirect versus direct antioxidants
prevalent in cruciferous
vegetables, brightly colored
berries, and certain spices
the body to make
its own antioxidants.
Scientists now believe there are two kinds of antioxidants: “direct,” like vitamins E and C, which zap free
radicals on their own, and “indirect”—prevalent in cruciferous vegetables, brightly colored berries, and certain
spices and herbs—that jump-start the body to make its
Although direct antioxidants are valuable, researchers
say, they are inferior in that each one is deactivated after it
takes out one free radical—much like the bee that sacrifices
its life with a single sting. Consider the fact that you produce
millions upon millions of free radicals per day, and direct
antioxidants are a bit like firemen armed with tiny buckets
at a house fire, says McCord. By some estimates, you’d have
to consume 375 oranges or 120 vitamin-C tablets daily to
On the other hand, consuming indirect antioxidants
(thus far, about 50 have been identified in foods and herbs)
is like turning on the hose, creating an endless stream.
“Indirect antioxidants are going to make a big splash in
how we treat diseases,” says McCord.
More important research news: Antioxidants work better
together. For instance, says Blumberg, vitamin C “recycles”
vitamin E, “returning it back to its active form so it can