Uses and Who Needs Them the Most
by Dr. Krysten DeSouza, ND
Collaborative Healthcare Network
5-3405 South Millway, Mississauga, ON, L5L 3R1
In the last few years, the hype around “superfoods” has many of us adding random dried fruits and ingredients to our day without understanding what they are and how they work. Various foods go in and out of the trends, making us feel guilty if we don’t immediately add them to our grocery list. But instead of calling them “superfoods,” perhaps we should investigate the meaning of “antioxidants” and just how they can help us.
A discussion on antioxidants would not be complete without first assessing oxidation and looking at prooxidants. We live by breathing every second of every day, which means bringing oxygen into our bodies to allow regular metabolic functions to take place. Without getting too scientific, oxygen molecules can sometimes become unstable, creating a molecule known as a free radical or reactive oxygen species. They are highly sensitive and can be responsible for cell damage, early signs of aging, and chronic diseases such as cancer.
The reactive process can be accelerated by such things as smoking and breathing toxins, but for the most part, these free radicals are produced as natural by-products of normal body processes.
So how do we stop this process? Enter antioxidants. These unique compounds, found in various foods, are the heroes of the cellular world. They are released from the foods we eat and travel through the bloodstream to various cells, identifying free radicals and binding to them before they can do any harm. Once a free radical is bound, it is no longer able to continue down its path; however, the key here is that antioxidants must be available and ready for action, i.e. we must eat them, and we must be able to properly digest and absorb them.
The most common place to find these antioxidants is in our fruits and plants, but you may not have to look too far to find some great sources. Vitamins A, C, and E are among the most efficient and abundant in the diet and are found in most fruits and vegetables. We can never know exactly what our oxidation status is, so whether you need a lot of antioxidants or not, it’s best to load up on these foods anyway.
Vitamin C—This is one we are all familiar with, because we take it during flu season and forget about it the rest of the year. Vitamin C is an easily attainable antioxidant and should be maintained all year round, whether by food or supplementation. Because it is a water-soluble vitamin and because food sources of vitamin C are often high in other vitamins as well, it is difficult to isolate vitamin C in research and determine its specific antioxidant potential. However, the foods highest in vitamin C are peppers, kiwi, and oranges.
Vitamin A—Many of our vegetables contain a precursor to vitamin A which is known as beta carotene. This conversion process is not the most efficient in the human body, but the more beta carotene we have, the higher the action potential of vitamin A. beta Carotene levels in the body can be measured and are often used as a biomarker for fruit and vegetable consumption. We know that individuals with higher beta carotene levels in their blood correlate with lower cardiovascular disease risk in the long run; however, research is inconclusive on its prevention of certain forms of cancer. Some of the top foods for vitamin A include liver, salmon, broccoli, and carrots. 
Vitamin E—Another powerful antioxidant, but this one is not as commonly consumed as the other two. It is in many of our skin-care products, and especially skin-repair creams, but few of us know that vitamin E’s potential for antioxidation extends far below the surface of the skin. Current research into vitamin E’s activity is looking at the antioxidant’s role in Alzheimer’s and dementia, total knee replacements, cardiovascular disease, and diabetic nephropathy. 
Selenium—Selenium is a mineral found in the soil that is present naturally in certain foods. It plays a key role in metabolism, thyroid function, and of course oxidative stress. It’s not common to be low in selenium; in fact, our daily requirements for the mineral are fairly low and can be met easily with 2–3 Brazil nuts. Naturopathic doctors use selenium to help manage a wide range of conditions including asthma, arthritis, wound healing, and antiaging. Some of the best sources of selenium come from chicken, turkey, liver, and tuna. 
Lycopene—We know this compound for its availability in tomatoes and tomato paste. Lycopene is an antioxidant with upcoming research in prevention of cardiovascular disease and protection against prostate cancer. It can reduce the damage caused by “bad” LDL cholesterol and protect blood vessels from harmful plaques. The effects of lycopene are said to be most evident in populations with a history of smoking, diabetes, kidney damage, and heart attacks. 
Now that we know what to eat, what specific conditions can benefit from higher doses of antioxidants? Almost every health condition has an inflammatory component in which oxidative stress is an issue and antioxidants can be of benefit. As a naturopathic doctor, some of my most common conditions for the use of antioxidants include the following.
Asthma—Whether you need to use the puffer every day in allergy season or once a year, most individuals with asthma have some form of ongoing chest tightness or wheezing. Antioxidants are some of the first nutrients to consider, whether in the form of diet or supplementation. Over time, antioxidants can help reduce wheezing and mucous, repair the respiratory tract, and support the immune system.
Surgical Scar and Wound Healing—Surgical scars are deep and often leave lasting marks on the skin; however, the use of antioxidants can greatly speed up healing and reduce the overproduction of scar tissue. Ideal for any age group and for any form of injury, antioxidants in supplement form can be taken in higher doses during the acute and chronic healing phases.
Diabetes—As listed above in the nutrient profiles, diabetes is one condition under a lot of investigation for the use of antioxidants. Because there is a strong link to diabetes with poor lifestyle and dietary habits, and because the main form of antioxidants come from food, the chances of a diabetic being low in antioxidants is quite high. A complete dietary assessment, along with bloodwork and a determination of the extent of diabetes progression, will all determine the amount of antioxidant required. Some of my favourite antioxidants for diabetes include alpha lipoic acid, green tea extract, and N acetylcysteine.
Cardiovascular Disease—As is the case with diabetes, depending on the progression and the extent of cardiovascular disease, dietary antioxidants may not suffice. Antioxidants can help protect by supporting the use of cholesterol in the body and eliminating excess amounts before they can cause harm to the blood vessels. A study published in the Circulation journal found that the greatest success in reducing coronary heart disease risk came from the combination of all the antioxidants together in food sources, and not necessarily in high-dose supplementation.  This goes to show the power of a healthy diet and using food as medicine for a lifetime.
Healthy Aging—As we age, our taste buds tend to change, and we are no longer satisfied with the flavours of healthier food options. Often, elderly turn to sweets and desserts to satisfy their taste buds, and this leaves them devoid of essential nutrients from vegetables. Antioxidants support the brain and all its processes including memory, focus, and concentration; improve wound healing; and protect the skin. Many antiwrinkle creams contain high doses of antioxidants to strengthen the skin elasticity, support the collagen structure, and prevent further damage from the sun. However, as we have discussed in this article, short-term use of these creams will do little, and the greatest benefit comes from antioxidant food sources in abundance over many years.