Metals rust when exposed to air. An apple slice turns brown. Fish becomes rancid. A cut on your skin gets raw and inflamed. All of these result from a natural process called oxidation. It happens to all cells in nature, including the ones in our body. But there are substances that are capable of counteracting the damaging but normal effects of the physiological process of oxidation—antioxidants.
Antioxidants are nutrients [vitamins and minerals] as well as enzymes [proteins in our body that assist in chemical reactions]. They are available for the skin in both oral and topical forms.
As oxygen interacts with cells of any type—an apple slice or the cells lining our lungs or in a cut on our skin—oxidation occurs. This changes those cells. They may die, such as with rotting fruit. In the case of cut skin, new cells replace the dead cells in time and the cut heals. This keeps our body healthy. While the body metabolises oxygen efficiently, it damages 1 per cent or 2 per cent of cells in the process. These damaged cells turn into free radicals, which can be problematic. Free radicals often injure the cell, damaging the DNA. When a cell’s DNA changes, it becomes mutated. It grows abnormally and reproduces abnormally. This creates seed for disease. This is where antioxidants help.
Antioxidants at work
Antioxidants block the process of oxidation by neutralising free radicals. Antioxidants get oxidised in the process, and hence need to be constantly replenished.
Different antioxidants deal differently with each type of free radical. While in one particular system an antioxidant may protect against free radicals, in other systems it could have no effect at all. For example, vitamin C captures the free radical and neutralizes it, thus stopping the chain reaction before it starts. Vitamin E is a chain-breaking antioxidant. It breaks the chain reaction wherever it is present.
Hence, our body constantly requires a good combination of antioxidants, both in the diet and in supplementation.
Flavonoids are the biggest class of antioxidants. Researchers have identified some 5,000 flavonoids in various foods.
Polyphenols are a smaller class of antioxidants, which scientists often refer to as ‘phenols.’ They are also called phytonutrients and phytochemicals as they are obtained from plants.
Researchers continue delving into the mysteries of fruits and vegetables, identifying the complex antioxidants they contain. More and more complex flavanoids are discovered, with tremendous health benefits. While we may never need to remember that epicatechin 3-gallate is beneficial for skin circulation, just knowing that a cup of green tea improves complexion takes us a natural step closer to good health!
Vitamin E; Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, Beta-carotene and Selenium. Similar to selenium, the minerals manganese and zinc are trace elements that form an essential part of various antioxidant enzymes. The antioxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase [SOD], catalase [CAT] and glutathione peroxidase [GPx] serve as your primary line of defense in destroying free radicals. Together, they repair oxidized DNA, degrade oxidized protein, and destroy oxidized lipids [fat-like substances that are a constituent of cell membranes]. Various other enzymes act as a secondary antioxidant defense mechanism to protect you from further damage. In addition to enzymes, vitamins, and minerals, there are other nutrients and compounds that have antioxidant properties. Among them is coenzyme Q10 [CoQ10, or ubiquinone], which is essential to energy production and can also protect the body from destructive free radicals.
Our bodies need a Natural Antioxidant Defense Network made up of antioxidants of different kinds and classes. That is why we need to eat different kinds of foods and mix different food groups, in what is colourfully described as a ‘Rainbow’ diet.
Antioxidants are effective in treating all skin conditions, especially inflammatory conditions like acne, and ageing. Antioxidants are available orally as supplements and topically as creams, and naturally in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes.
The food that we eat remains the smartest choice for obtaining our antioxidants. Studies consistently demonstrate that we eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables everyday as part of a balanced diet. Let us take a quick look at the common foods which provide us with abundant antioxidants:
Vitamin E is found in vegetable oils, walnuts, peanuts, almonds, seeds, olives, avocado, wheat germ, liver, and leafy green vegetables. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits [like oranges and grapefruit], broccoli, leafy vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries.
Common sources of beta-carotene include cantaloupe, mangoes, papaya, pumpkin, peppers, spinach, kale, squash, sweet potatoes, and apricots.
We can find selenium in seafood, chicken, some nuts, and brown rice.
Magnesium is found in abundant quantities in brown rice.
Phytochemicals are found in a variety of sources. Some of them are:
- Blueberries contain anthocyanins which protect against the effects of ageing. Blueberries also contain ellagic acid which may reduce the risk of certain forms of skin cancer and decrease cholesterol levels.
- Cabbage contains a variety of phytochemicals including sulphoraphane and indoles.
- Carrots contain beta-carotene which help slow ageing, reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, improve lung function, and reduce complications associated with diabetes.
- Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines contain hesperidins and tangeritin which act as antioxidants to prevent pigmentation.
- Garlic contains allium compounds which reduce the risk of certain forms of cancers and improve skin circulation. Garlic also contains quercetins which may reduce inflammation associated with allergies.
- Mangoes contain beta-carotene which help slow the ageing process, reduce the risk of certain forms of cancer, improve lung function, and reduce complications associated with diabetes.
- Red peppers contain lycopene which reverses the process of ageing.
- Spinach contains beta-carotene which may help slow the ageing process.
- Tomatoes and cooked tomato products contain lycopene. Tomato products such as ketchup, tomato juice, and spaghetti sauce are some excellent sources of lycopene.The amount of antioxidants required per day is not yet standardised. While vitamins have a daily prescription level, most of the photochemicals still do not have a standardised scale. Hence, the smartest thing to do is to mix up as many of them as possible and eat them on a regular basis.Many skin creams also contain vitamin E, Co Q 10, retinoids etc. While some of these like retinoids [derivatives of vitamin A] are useful topically in acne, anti-ageing and skin health, to maximise the benefits it is best to supplement it with a healthy diet.
Remember, the key to healthy beautiful skin is to treat it well inside out. So, stock up on antioxidants to keep your skin well nourished andrust free!
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