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What is an antioxidant, anyway?

Antioxidant is a major buzz word, but does it really mean anything to you? Generally, I’m sure you understand that antioxidants are good, and that oxidation is not so good, therefore we want to prevent oxidation by eating and applying ANTIoxidants. That’s the superficial story, but if we are going to be telling you about how wonderful our antioxidant-rich products are, like our body oils and face serums, and sharing antioxidant-rich recipes like our Longevity Breakfast Smoothie, let’s go a little deeper. I have to talk some chemistry and biology here. But, just try to forget the PTSD from your awful high-school science teacher, and I promise to be gentle. Deep breath…

Want the antioxidants without the science? Check out some of our favorite antioxidant-rich products!

What is oxidative stress?

We need oxygen. We can’t live without it. But it does damage, too. Inside cells, a phenomenon called oxidative stress causes trouble. Oxidation is a process by which exposure to oxygen produces free radicals—another term that means something hazily, amorphously bad. A free radical is a molecule with a dangling bond. You just rolled your eyes. I felt it. Stay with me.

You’re at Nordstrom. There's a sale on handbags. You have one in each hand and are headed to the checkout counter. Then you spy another woman with a better bag. You narrow your eyes. You WANT her bag. You drop one of yours—now you have a dangling bond—and you grab her bag. Now she has a dangling bond. She goes after someone else's bag. Soon it’s chaos—a bunch of crazy, sale-frenzied, bag-grabbing people. There are screams, bloody scratch marks, and a horrible vortex of negative energy swirling wildly about, each free radical hag for herself. Are you picturing this? THAT’S what happens inside your cells when the oxidation of molecules produces free radicals!

Shopping analogy firmly in place, now picture a water molecule – an oxygen atom with a hydrogen atom in each hand (H2O). When the water molecule gets oxidized, it loses one of its hydrogen atoms, and has a dangling free bond (this molecule is now called the hydroxyl radical). That dangling bond grabs anything and everything it can, including intracellular proteins and DNA. Once it starts grabbing with its dangling bond, all hell breaks loose inside the cell. It grabs on to proteins, like collagen, causing them to uncoil and become damaged, resulting in cell injury and cell death, ultimately translating to saggy, looser skin. Free radicals also cause trouble in DNA by bonding with the DNA structure and causing mutations, which can ultimately do horrible things, like cause cancer.

This same type of free radical damage may be involved in the development of dementia, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and atherosclerosis – to name a few.

Are free radicals are bad for you?

Yes, but before you hate all radicals, let me say that A FEW of them are necessary. Their presence inside a cell can indicate that the cell is damaged and ready to be disposed of by the larger cells (macrophages, the little Pac-Man garbage collectors) responsible for cleaning up debris. Cells with unwanted bacteria often have radicals, which signal to the extracellular environment that they need help. But, when too many free radicals show up, it’s impossible to keep track of the helpful, signaling molecules versus the destructive, mutation-causing ones. The clean-up cells get overwhelmed and confused, and then it’s the Nordstrom scene all over again.

Finding the right balance is the trick. Despite the beneficial actions of antioxidants inside the body, high-dose antioxidant supplements have not been conclusively shown to prevent the diseases caused by oxidative damage, and can even be harmful. However, consuming antioxidant-rich foods (see recipe below!), and using skin products high in antioxidants can help keep free radicals at optimum levels.

Are antioxidants good for my skin?

Three antioxidants particularly relevant to skin care are Vitamins A, C, and E. Vitamin A, commonly referred to as tretinoin or retinoic acid, is the active ingredient in Retin-A. While it is available in pharmaceutical format, and has been shown, without a doubt, to improve skin appearance, it's hard for some skin types to tolerate. Retinol, a milder form, is not as harsh on the skin, but may still irritate very sensitive skin. Using oils rich in Vitamin A is a safer alternative, and can improve skin appearance, albeit more slowly.

Vitamin C also has activity against free radicals, and can help lighten dark spots and improve skin texture. Using products with a relatively stable form of Vitamin C, such as magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, may help keep the vitamin in its most active, beneficial state. Both Vitamin A and Vitamin C increase sensitivity to the sun, and can have diminished efficacy when exposed to sunlight, so you need to be cautious about exposure.

Finally, Vitamin E, which is essentially a collection of 8 tocopherols and tocotrienols, has been shown to limit oxidative damage. This is useful for application on the skin, as well as in the skin care product itself, where it helps prevent rancidity and oxidation. (We use Vitamin E as part of an antioxidant system in many of our products, both to protect the product and to improve the texture of your skin.)

So, those are the basics. There is SO much more to be learned about antioxidants and free radicals, but that seems like enough for one session, especially since you were so patient and put up with all that science. As a reward for your efforts, here's a recipe for an antioxidant powerhouse breakfast, so you can go conquer the world today!

Radical Avenger Breakfast Bowl 

  • 2/3 cup cooked brown rice
  • 1/2 cup blueberries
  • 1/2 cup raspberries
  • 1T chia seeds
  • 1T ground flax seeds
  • 1T hemp seeds
  • 1T sunflower seeds 
  • 1T pumpkin seeds
  • 1 cup almond milk
  • Drizzle of honey if you like

I use sprouted sunflower and pumpkin seeds for a little extra nutrition, and they're very lightly salted, so it adds a touch more flavor. This is a power breakfast—hope you feel like a superhero and have a completely radical day!

With loads of love and blueberries from us to you,