Anti-oxidants

Berries as Antioxidant (Photo by Cecilia Par on Unsplash)

I am not sure how accurate this analogy is, but if we were to look at brain deterioration as being like a rusty tin roof with a lot of holes, it would make sense to try and prevent further rusting to limit the damage done to the roof. Even in the rest of our body, our cells and organs deteriorate as we age, which we can also think of as being like getting rusty. This problem is particularly critical in our brains, as was well-explained in this article, which says “Oxidative stress can lead to ‘attack’ on brain cells by chemicals called free radicals. It is these free radicals that cause oxidative damage. In the brain, free radicals seem to contribute to aging and age-associated neurodegenerative disorders. The brain is particularly susceptible to oxidative damage as it uses lots of oxygen to produce energy, has high levels of unsaturated fatty acids (which are particularly susceptible to damage), and relatively low levels of antioxidants.”

Based on this information, it seems like it should make sense for us to take plenty of anti-oxidants. After all, anti-oxidants are also very helpful in preventing cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, etc.

However, it turns out that it is not so straightforward. Like most things, a large amount of anti-oxidants is not always a good thing. I have learned from this article that free radicals are essential for energy metabolism in the cell as well as the protective function of neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) against pathogens. We sometimes need free radicals.  Also, excessive intake of anti-oxidants has the potential to cause other physical damage as described in this article.

There are two ways in which we can consume antioxidants; either through antioxidant-rich natural foods, or synthetic vitamins like A, E, C and beta carotene. However, if synthetic vitamins are consumed in large doses, this could result in damage to other organs. They might also react with other chemicals in your body to produce toxic products, so the use of synthetic anti-oxidants requires great care.

It is also important to keep in mind that most scientific studies are done on an average population. This means that something that might work well with many people does not necessarily mean that it will work well for you. Every one of us is unique with different conditions. That’s why it is so important to consult with doctors and dietitians to find appropriate combinations of vitamins and dosages specifically tailored to your condition. If you would like to learn more about this, here is an excellent article describing the pros and cons of antioxidants. I strongly recommend reading it.

Overall, the most important strategy is to follow a healthy dietary pattern that includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, all of which are a good source of antioxidants.

There are many many articles that give a list of healthy foods to maximize antioxidant intake in a safe way. For your convenience, I have included a list from Harvard Medical Publishing here.

  • Green, leafy vegetables. Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli are rich in brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene. Research suggests these plant-based foods may help slow cognitive decline.
  • Fatty fish. Fatty fish are abundant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, healthy unsaturated fats that have been linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid—the protein that forms damaging clumps in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Try to eat fish at least twice a week, but choose varieties that are low in mercury, such as salmon, cod, canned light tuna, and pollack. If you’re not a fan of fish, ask your doctor about taking an omega-3 supplement, or choose terrestrial omega-3 sources such as flaxseeds, avocados, and walnuts.
  • Berries. Flavonoids, the natural plant pigments that give berries their brilliant hues, also help improve memory, research shows. In a 2012 study published in Annals of Neurology, researchers at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that women who consumed two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries each week delayed memory decline by up to two-and-a-half years.
  • Tea and coffee. The caffeine in your morning cup of coffee or tea might offer more than just a short-term concentration boost. In a 2014 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, participants with higher caffeine consumption scored better on tests of mental function. Caffeine might also help solidify new memories, according to other research. Investigators at Johns Hopkins University asked participants to study a series of images and then take either a placebo or a 200-milligram caffeine tablet. More members of the caffeine group were able to correctly identify the images on the following day.
  • Walnuts. Nuts are excellent sources of protein and healthy fats, and one type of nut in particular might also improve memory. A 2015 study from UCLA linked higher walnut consumption to improved cognitive test scores. Walnuts are high in a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which helps lower blood pressure and protects arteries. That’s good for both the heart and brain.

In addition to the above list, I am adding one more item because I believe it is important enough that it requires a special attention.

  • Turmeric. Turmeric is a root vegetable often used as a spice in Indian dishes among others. (Most people in India don’t develop Alzheimer’s disease and it is believed that extensive use of turmeric is one of the reasons.) It has a component called curcumin which is proven to aid in the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, as well as metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia. It has been studied extensively and its efficacy has been proven in many studies. This article has a very detailed description of curcumin and how it helps with various ailments. Also this video shows the effect of turmeric consumption on Alzheimer’s disease. Turmeric can be easily incorporated in your daily meals by simply sprinkling it on salads or adding to various cooked vegetables. One thing to note, however, is that you need to take it with pepper. Otherwise, your body will not be able to assimilate it.

So, the bottom line is that unless your doctor has prescribed vitamins for a specific condition, use of synthetic vitamins in large doses might not be a good strategy for coping with MCI (mild cognitive impairment). Instead, we should eat healthy foods containing a variety of antioxidants. It is safer and also better for your overall health. However, there are some exceptions; one being vitamin D. It is very difficult to get enough vitamin D from food or sunlight, so it is prudent to take your recommended dosage regularly. Also important if you follow a vegan diet is vitamin B12. A diet without meat and fish does not supply sufficient amounts, and so a lack of B12 can cause serious health problems.

Eating healthy foods containing anti-oxidants is one of the easiest and most effective ways to cope with MCI (mild cognitive impairment). They are all delicious and enjoyable and can be implemented in everyday life easily. Including these foods in your daily diet is a no-brainer!

Check out other topics here.

2 thoughts on “Anti-oxidants

  1. Very well written Blog. I fully agree that a great amount of care, thought and professional guidance are warranted when trying to navigate the best use of anti-oxidants. It can quickly get confusing when trying to navigate through conflicting scientific studies, or the latest “health food” products on the shelves of the big box stores. An added complexity is genetics which can change the way an individual might respond to a particular food/supplement.

    That all said, without absolute proof, I’ve decided for myself, adding two 1200 mg softgels daily of Omega-3 might be helpful. I believe there are both fish based and vegetable based versions. I take a fish based pill that our local, very large Health Maintenance Organization (HMO), Kaiser, carries in their pharmacy (Nature’s Blend). It is odorless so I don’t burp up fish smells later, and it is mercury free. How do I know it’s working? That’s a very hard question to answer. I look for subtle changes. I’m very athletic so I’m very sensitive to changes in my performance. Body temperature, energy level, clarity of thinking, how easy it is to perform both routine and complex tasks, does it keep me up at night or make it hard to get up in the morning? It is helping me? I’m think so, but more time will tell.

    I’ll admit two rather anecdotal events influenced my decision: First, a member of my family contracted stomach cancer requiring extensive treatment. We’re optimistic she has been cured. The treatment involved two major surgeries and lots of chemo. The surgeon, a stomach cancer specialist, insisted that she take Omega-3 supplements. Second, I get an annual neurological tests and a complete physical exam, the results of which go into a large shared database. The purpose of the database it to help understand how people age with the focus on brain health. The researcher added “how often do you eat fish”, to the long list of life style questions. There appears to be strong emerging evidence that fish/omega 3 may delay dementia and contribute to longer healthier lives.

    I also take a vitamin E supplement about once very five days. The pros and cons of that decision is a much longer explanation – another time. Vitamin E is one of those supplements that can have very negative side effects.

    Liked by 1 person

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