You may already be familiar with the benefits of antioxidants for protecting against free radical damage and slowing the process of aging, but did you know that antioxidants are important for a healthy immune system as well? Your immune system is responsible for fighting off potential infections and other harmful substances, so anything you can do to support it is worth doing.
Keep reading to learn more about antioxidants including what they are, how they support healthy immunity, and how to get more of them in your daily diet.
What Are Antioxidants, Exactly?
The term antioxidant is thrown around a lot in health circles and, though you may be familiar with some of their benefits, do you actually know what they are? Antioxidants are compounds found in certain foods that help protect your cells against damage – free-radical damage in particular. Free radicals are reactive molecules that have an unpaired electron. These molecules bind themselves to other cells in the body and steal one of their electrons, causing damage and turning that cell into a free radical.
This process sets of a chain reaction in which healthy cells are turned into free radicals. As more cells are turned into free radicals, the body sustains more cellular damage and oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been correlated with a number of serious health problems including heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, inflammatory diseases, macular degeneration, and certain types of cancer.
But how exactly do antioxidants impact this process?
The human body has natural systems in place to help protect against free-radical damage and oxidative stress, but antioxidants help those systems along. Antioxidants bind themselves to free radicals, sacrificing one of their own electrons to neutralize the free radical and to prevent it from harming other molecules and cells.
Antioxidants are able to lose one of their own electrons without becoming a free radical themselves, so they are highly effective in stopping the free-radical chain of damage.
How Do Antioxidants Support Healthy Immunity?
While the primary benefit of antioxidants is their ability to stop free-radical damage, they also have a beneficial impact on your immune system. As your cells become damaged by free radicals, inflammation becomes more and more of an issue – antioxidants, in neutralizing those free radicals, helps to reduce inflammation throughout the body and that benefits your immune system.
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to injury. When you hurt yourself (such as a cut or scrape), your body immediately gets to work protecting itself and starting the healing process. As blood and immune cells travel to the site of injury, you experience symptoms such as redness, swelling, and warmth. These are the signs of acute inflammation and they are typically short-term side effects which resolve as the injury heals.
While acute inflammation is beneficial, chronic inflammation can be very damaging to your body and to your immune system.
Chronic inflammation is associated with “wear and tear” conditions like arthritis as well as allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, and autoimmune diseases. It occurs when the body perceives an internal threat and sends out an immune response. Because there is no actual illness or injury, however, the immune cells have nothing to do and they eventually start attacking healthy tissues and organs in what is known as an autoimmune response. Antioxidants can help by neutralizing inflammatory cytokines, stopping free radical damage and restoring normal immune function.
How to Include More Antioxidants in Your Diet
The best natural sources of antioxidants are plant foods. They can be found most abundantly in fresh fruits and vegetables, though other foods contain them in lower quantities – your body can even synthesize certain antioxidants on its own.
The most common antioxidants found in foods include Vitamins A, C, and E as well as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and selenium. Here is an overview of some of the richest sources of antioxidants:
- VitaminA – A type of fat-soluble antioxidant, Vitamin A is closely linked to immune function as well as cell growth and reproduction. You can find this antioxidant in milk, eggs, butter, and liver.
- VitaminC – A water-antioxidant, Vitamin C can be found in most fruits and vegetables. The richest food sources of vitamin C include berries, citrus fruit, melon, cruciferous vegetables, and leafy greens.
- Vitamin E – A fat-soluble antioxidant, Vitamin E plays a role in protecting cell membranes. This antioxidant can be found in nuts and seeds as well as leafy greens and some plant oils.
- Beta–Carotene – The pigment responsible for red and orange color in plant foods, beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant. You can find it in peaches, papaya, mango, cantaloupe, carrots, peas, squash, and sweet potatoes as well as some leafy greens.
- Lycopene – A red carotenoid pigment, you can find lycopene in red and pink foods such as grapefruit, tomatoes, watermelon, and apricots.
- Lutein – This antioxidant is responsible for the yellow pigment in foodsbut you can also find it leafy greens, broccoli, peas, papaya, oranges, and corn.
- Selenium – A trace mineral, selenium plays a role in many bodily processes including immunity. You can find it primarily in animal foods like meat and fish but it is also in some grains,, nuts, and legumes.
The simplest way to boost your antioxidant intake is to eat more fruits and vegetables. Generally speaking, brightly colored foods have the highest nutrient content and they also tend to be high in antioxidants, so be sure to include them in your diet as much as possible.