We often consider antioxidants a modern fountain of youth, but to what degree can they actually affect the aging process?
If you know the importance of antioxidants, then you know that their not-so-secret power is their ability to reduce cellular damage caused by free radicals. You should also know, however, that free radicals – and, therefore, aging – are an inevitable part of every molecule’s life span.
The good news is that antioxidants, by definition, help mitigate the stress that free radicals place on cellular structures, slowing the aging process on a molecular level. But what are free radicals, and how do antioxidants fight their effects?
What Are Free Radicals?
These days, most of us worry about the risks of free radicals flowing throughout our bodies. Even if we don’t fully understand what they are, we’ve heard enough to know that they warrant caution. But many people don’t realize that they’re actually an important part of our bodies’ biological processes.
Free radicals, which are byproducts of cell metabolism, are highly reactive molecules missing an electron. When they react with other molecules, free radicals steal electrons to remain stable – a process known as oxidation – which turns other molecules into more free radicals.
Oxidation damages cells and leaves them weak by affecting their ability to produce energy, and they affect our bodies by creating chain reactions of oxidative damage. Consequently, the point of antioxidants is to offset this damage by preventing free radical reactions.
So Free Radicals Age Us?
Oxidative stress caused by free radicals is a major cause of aging in several different ways. In terms of aesthetics, free radicals are highly attracted to proteins – like the collagen and lipids that keep youthful skin taught and moisturized.
The cumulative effects can lead to dry, wrinkled, thin, and dull skin. According to Mathilde Thomas, founder of the Caudalie line of antioxidant-powered products, free radicals are “the cause of a whopping 80 percent of all skin aging.”
On another level, free radicals can attack DNA through individual cells, particularly mitochondrial DNA. A cell’s mitochondria is the source of its energy, and during a free radical attack, it cannot produce the energy needed for the cell to operate properly. This causes the cell to age, also making free radicals a health risk that could potentially lead to systemic issues like cancer.
How Antioxidants Work
Antioxidants don’t repair the damage a cell sustains from oxidation; they prevent oxidation before it starts by stopping free radicals from stealing electrons from healthy cells. For anti-aging purposes, this provides a formidable defense against the visual signs of aging, especially those that affect your skin.
Antioxidants like vitamins, polyphenols, and flavonoids are often used in combination with sunscreens and other skincare products to reduce the aging effects of sun exposure. For example, vitamin E helps boost collagen production to keep skin firm, and lycopene improves skin texture by reducing the damage free radicals cause to DNA.
In fact, there’s a flood of health and skincare products boasting antioxidant protection. Still, the best way to obtain sufficient antioxidants isn’t through the skin, but through your diet. Feeding your body the nutrients it needs will empower it to maintain enough antioxidants to combat free radical cell damage.
Where Antioxidants Come From
When it comes to antioxidant intake, research is still mixed on whether people should rely on nutritional supplements or stay away from them completely. However, experts agree that antioxidant-rich foods – like fruits, vegetables, and fish – are vital ingredients for a healthier, longer life. A few tips to maximize the number of antioxidants in your diet include:
Eat raw vegetables: Preparing and cooking vegetables can impact the nutrients you get out of them. Eating vegetables raw will ensure you get the most antioxidants. But that doesn’t mean you should never eat cooked veggies. You can preserve most of their nutritional value by not soaking them first and by cooking them quickly, preferably by steaming.
Have fun with colors: Antioxidants come in many varieties, and these varieties give different foods their distinctive colors. The exact color isn’t as important as making sure there’s a variety of colors so you receive a healthy assortment of antioxidants from each meal.
Drink antioxidant-rich beverages: Some beverages are well-known for their antioxidant content, like green tea. But other favorites can also be beneficial, such as coffee, red wine, orange juice, pomegranate juice, and other fruit juices.
Though we can’t reverse the aging process or the reactions of free radicals, antioxidants provide a way for us to control them. Be sure to include a healthy number and variety of antioxidants in your diet to reap the health and anti-aging benefits of fighting free radicals.
Written by Kevin Xu. Kevin is the CEO of MEBO International, a California- and Beijing-based intellectual property management company specializing in applied health systems. He also leads Skingenix, which specializes in skin organ regeneration and the research and development of botanical drug products.