What Are Antioxidants and How Do They Work?

Posted by Stephany Morgan on

You’ve probably heard about antioxidants. Everyone is talking about superfoods and super-teas with very high antioxidant levels (think blueberries with their anthocyanins, Matcha, Moringa, Goji berries, etc.), but cutting through all the noise to find trustworthy information about them can be challenging. Basically, their benefits are no secret, yet contradictions abound! This series of posts about antioxidants and antioxidants in tea will try to shed some scientifically robust light on them.

But first! We need to understand what free radicals are and just how important it is that we have the antioxidants available to neutralize them.

Teacup of Blueberries Matcha Alternatives

Where do free radicals come from?

Free radicals come from a variety of sources, ranging from foods to sunlight to cigarette smoke and pollutants. And while they are found in some foods, more are produced when the body converts food to energy. Free radicals, also called Reactive Oxygen Species, are molecules with an oxygen atom that has an unpaired electron. These unpaired electrons need another electron to become stable, so they steal from the nearest molecule (imagine a game of tug-a-war).

When this happens, oxidative stress occurs and alters the structure and function of the molecule which lost the electron and can result in signs of ageing, increased susceptibility to/progression of disease, and even DNA damage.

Antioxidant Tug of War Matcha Alternatives

So, what are antioxidants? How do they help?

Antioxidants are not actually “things” but properties attributed to certain vitamins and compounds. They have antioxidant “action”. For you grammar enthusiasts, “antioxidant” is a verb, not a noun. They help by swooping in and donating an electron to the electron-hungry free radical hedging to steal one from unsuspecting victims. When this donation occurs, the free radical is satisfied and its potential for damage is neutralized. The antioxidant acted by preventing oxidative stress from occurring.

Antioxidant-rich Blueberries Raspberries Dragonfruit

Can antioxidants prevent disease? Supplements vs Tea & Diet

Most sources suggest that they can, but there are always extraneous variables that could muddle the results. It’s been observed that eating a diet rich in fruits and veggies means lower disease incidence, but they don’t know if this is due to the antioxidants or other phytochemicals.

However, some studies of antioxidant supplements (which are antioxidants removed from their whole-food context and typically given in large doses in clinical settings) become pro-oxidants. These increase risk for certain diseases. Importantly, this reductionist approach is not found in nature (i.e. unnaturally high quantities in capsule form don't exist naturally!).

Meaning, isolated antioxidant supplements are potentially harmful, so it’s important to only get antioxidants from whole food sources. This is the safest approach because they have thousands of other components which interact synergistically as either catalysts or buffers, helping to provide your body with exactly what it needs. 

From a holistic point of view, antioxidants become damaging, and may increase disease risk, only when they are taken unnaturally.

By getting antioxidants from plant sources such as tea, you are protecting yourself by allowing the other food elements to do their job while making sure that you don’t get too much of a good thing.

Antioxidant Rich Herbal Tea Options Matcha Alternatives

Antioxidant Fun Facts

  • Teas are a great source of antioxidants!
  • Purple tea has more antioxidants than green tea due to its anthocyanins (the same antioxidant in blueberries)
  • Honeybush has an ORAC level of 2,818 vs. the 1,253 found in Green tea.
  • ORAC levels stands for “Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity”, which tells us how many free radicals a substance can “neutralize”.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series which I'll be posting in the next few weeks! Loads more to come about the wonderful world of antioxidants. 

Tea and Books Matcha Alternatives

A Note From The Herbalist...

Personally, I love knowing that my cups of tea throughout the day are packed full of antioxidants, so they not only taste good but are good for me. Here's an ideal day of antioxidant-rich tea for me:

 

If you enjoyed this piece, subscribe to the MA Blog so you never miss another! It's all about tea, alternatives to matcha, antioxidants and smashing the pseudo-science myths peddled by the wellness industry. Also, don’t worry we hate spam as much as you do: we won't send any marketing emails. Any new teas or occasional offers are simply included in the regular "latest blog" notifications :-)

 

Afternoon Tea with Book Matcha Alternatives

Antioxidants References and Further Reading

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Antioxidants: In Depth National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), accessed 1 August 2019. 
Ware, M. How can antioxidants benefit our health? Medical New Today, accessed 1 August 2019.

Harvard School of Publich Health, Antioxidants: Beyond the Hype Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, accessed 1 August 2019.

H Nishino, M Murakoshi, Y Satomi. Health Promotion by Antioxidants Functional Foods in Health and Disease. 2011;1(12):574-581,  retrieved April 14, 2019

Superfoodly. Green Tea - Brewed ORAC Values Superfoodly, accessed 1 August 2019.

The Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership, Formation of Reactive Oxygen Species and Cellular Damage, Duke University, accessed 1 August 2019.

 

Final note...

And of course... All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. The information here is for educational use only.

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