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Base Knowledge: Antioxidants
We all know we need 'em, but what do they do exactly?
It shocked the heck out of me to realize that we haven’t covered antioxidants at New Personal Best. I talk about them in my book, The BWR Guide to Eating Like a Semi Pro, but they need some attention here too. After all, the interplay between antioxidants and free radicals is, to put it lightly, really cool.
Normally, never-ending squabbles are a bad thing. The Hundred Years War, the Crusades, the conflict between the New Republic and Galactic Empire—all nasty affairs with too many casualties, including those of us duped into sitting through The Phantom Menace.
But the oxidation-reduction (redox) cycle—the constant struggle between antioxidants and free radicals—actually has Nietzschean benefits. That is to say, if you redox wrong, it could kill you, but if you redox right, it’ll only make you stronger.
Free radicals and the redox cycle.
Free radicals—or reactive oxygen species (ROS)—are molecules that are missing an electron. (Electrons are subatomic particles that travel in pairs.) These unstable molecules roam the body, looking for trouble and stealing electrons. This process is called oxidation and it breaks down our cells. In some cases, it can even damage DNA.
Before you get all “Boo, free radicals,” keep in mind that some oxidation is completely normal. Our bodies are in a constant state of breakdown and renewal. Free radicals play an important role in this bio-recycling. They can even be somewhat benevolent in that they send out signals to whatever repair crew has to clean up their mess.
However, too much oxidative stress is obviously really bad. It kills off too many of your cells, playing a part in various issues, including cancer, diabetes, metabolic issues, and cardiovascular diseases.
A number of factors play into oxidative stress, including pollution, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, lack of sleep, and poor or inadequate diet.
So, obviously, not smoking, moderating your booze, getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy diet can balance out oxidative stress. These practices either supply you with antioxidants or support the system that creates antioxidants. (I didn’t include “don’t pollute” because I’m not sure that’ll have much impact on your personal oxidative stress, but still, polluting is bad so don’t do it.)
Antioxidants and the redox cycle.
Antioxidants are compounds that neutralize free radicals and complete the redox cycle, thus managing oxidative stress. People often say that they “fight” free radicals when, in fact, antioxidants donate electrons to free radicals. They’re basically just helping a brother out. But I guess you could say, “I fought homelessness by giving an unhoused guy a sleeping bag” so the term works.
Some of these antioxidants are endogenous, meaning your body produces them internally. Others come from your diet. These are called exogenous antioxidants.
Better-known exogenous antioxidants include vitamins C and E, zinc, and a slew of phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are healthful compounds found in fruits and veggies that also give them their color. (Spoiler alert: the next NPB newsletter covers a specific type of phytonutrient called polyphenols.)
Exercise and the redox cycle.
As I mentioned, the redox cycle is important to all kinds of biological processes, including building muscle. When you exercise, you build up the concentration of free radicals in your muscles. Your body then unleashes antioxidants to hand out sleeping bags to the free radicals. This process helps build your muscles back stronger.
While exercise technically creates free radicals, it can also increase your level of antioxidants. The relationship between exercise and the redox cycle is a little confusing, but I think it’s safe to say that too many beatdowns without rest or proper diet can play a role in excessive oxidative stress, whereas getting the right balance of exercise, nutrition, and recovery will do you right.
An antioxidant avalanche ain’t gonna help.
You’d think throwing a bunch of extra antioxidants into your shake would work to your advantage when recovering from training, but this doesn’t always appear to be the case. Taking high levels of antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E in supplement form post-workout can inhibit endogenous antioxidants from doing their job. When the cycle doesn’t happen properly, you don’t get the adaptation you’re looking for.
Antioxidants in food form, especially phytonutrient antioxidants, seem to get a pass. Probably because they’re working in synergy with other compounds in food, they actually support your endogenous antioxidants.
Supplementing with extracts that contain polyphenols and other phytonutrients also may be a win. In studies on athletes, both tart cherry and pomegranate extract appear to be beneficial for recovery when taken after a workout. Grape extract looks promising too.
So if you’re going to add antioxidants to your post-workout nutrition, look to fruit, fruit juice, and fruit extracts. Keep in mind that extracts are way more concentrated than whole fruit, so if you’re looking for the benefits shown in a study, check to see which one they used.
That said, if you’re looking to reap the benefits of antioxidants, the first place to start is your overall diet. Fruits and veggies, baby, fruits and veggies.
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