It seems as though the more we learn about disease, the more it comes back to inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a common comorbidity amongst the leading causes of death in the United States, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and even cancer. It’s something medical professionals have studied for years, but only recently have antioxidants become part of the conversation.
The bridge from chronic inflammation to talk about antioxidants is one built on the premise of free radicals. In recent years, scientists and medical professionals from across the spectrum of study have begun to dig into free radicals and their effects on the body. And while there’s still a lot we don’t know, antioxidants like Vitamin E have become ubiquitous in conversations about how to slow and even stop the damaging effects of chronic inflammation caused by free radical catalysts.
The link between free radicals and antioxidants
Free radicals are something of a mystery in modern medicine. Studies show that our bodies produce them at an alarming rate when exposed to stressors like pollution, illness and physical exertion. The more free radicals our bodies produce, the higher the potential for oxidative stress: cell damage and premature cell death.
Antioxidants are on the front lines of combatting free radicals. Where free radicals represent corrupt oxygen molecules that are missing one or more electrons, antioxidants have an abundance of them, ready to donate to stabilize reactive oxygen species (ROS).
While the relationship between free radicals and antioxidants is well-studied, science has only scratched the surface of how it affects the body’s inflammatory response—and the diseases that follow chronic, persistent inflammation.
Inflammation as the root of all disease
When the body undergoes stress or becomes injured, it triggers an inflammatory response. The release of inflammatory cells and cytokines is a physiological response that we have no control over. And, unfortunately, it’s one that’s often on a hair trigger—especially for those living with autoimmune conditions.
There’s an abundance of evidence that links inflammation to oxidative stress, which puts free radicals at the center of scrutiny for those suffering from chronic inflammation. That means, for many people, their bodies are constantly responding to free radicals with a low-level inflammatory response. The result is twofold. Not only are our bodies constantly fighting off perceived invaders, they’re actually paving the way for significant damage long-term as disease takes root.
Put simply, chronic inflammation as the result of persistent free radicals is compromising our bodies in a major way.
Controlling the body’s inflammatory response
It’s important to remember that, in a healthy capacity, inflammation is a good thing. It’s our bodies’ first line of defense against pathogenic invaders. Inflammation plays a key role in preventing infection when you cut your finger, for example. It’s only when inflammation becomes persistent that it becomes a problem.
How can we control our bodies’ seemingly uncontrolled response to inflammation? The answer is one most people are familiar with, but don’t fully understand: antioxidants.
At some point, we’ve all seen antioxidant foods advertised or been told to take certain supplements because of their antioxidant properties. It’s these dietary choices that can help us fend off the daily influx of free radicals and, in turn, lessen the perceived threats that are so quick to trigger a sustained inflammatory response.
How to boost antioxidant intake each day
Diet and supplements are the two best ways to fend off free radicals as they reach critical levels in your body. Specifically, it’s important to increase the level of antioxidant foods you consume daily, while also supplementing with antioxidant vitamins where there are gaps in your diet. In either case, look for products that are high in Vitamin E: the most powerful antioxidant vitamin.
- Diet. Foods that are high in Vitamin E include most cold-pressed oils such as wheat germ oil, sunflower oil and safflower oil. Nuts like almonds and peanuts are also a good source. Turn to leafy greens like chard and spinach, as well as veggies like avocado and red bell pepper.
- Supplements. Be aware of exactly what’s in your antioxidant supplements and where those ingredients are sourced from. In the case of Vitamin E supplements, know the difference between tocopherols and tocotrienols: the two major groups of antioxidants in the Vitamin E family. Always choose organic supplements.
Before making any changes to diet or supplement regimens, it’s best to speak with your physician, who may recommend tests to measure your baseline inflammatory response and any other pertinent factors.
The need for antioxidants is growing in Western medicine
As time goes on, the number of external stressors present in our everyday lives becomes higher and higher. Our bodies are responding in-kind, with a sustained, persistent inflammatory response that we have little control over—one that’s killing us slowly.
One of the best things you can do to fight back is to increase the level of antioxidants you take into your body on a regular basis. While the science is ongoing, it’s becoming evident that antioxidants are on the front lines of fighting free radicals and dampening the chronic inflammatory response that follows oxidative stress.