What are Antioxidants and How do They Affect the Body?


There’s a lot of talk about antioxidants in the health and medical world, but what exactly are they? You’ve heard that antioxidants are good for your health, but you may not know why or what they do.

Let’s take a closer look at what these compounds are, find popular sources of antioxidants, and learn about the effects of them. See what we did there? Lots to learn for lots of us!

What are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants fight free radicals in your body and help prevent or slow the damage they cause.

Free radicals, also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), are unstable molecules. Your body produces free radicals when it processes food and responds to environmental stresses. Sometimes, the body is unable to process and remove free radicals properly. When this happens, it causes oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress is just a term used to describe an imbalance between them and free radicals in the body. In other words, your body isn’t producing or receiving enough of them to neutralize the free radicals in your body.

As you may have guessed, oxidative stress is bad news for your health. It has been linked (1) to heart disease, respiratory diseases, stroke, cancer, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, immune deficiency, emphysema, osteoporosis and other health issues.

Oxidative stress can be accelerated by lifestyle and environmental factors, including:

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  • Alcohol consumption
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Pollution
  • Sunlight
  • Stress
  • Consumption of processed foods, artificial sweeteners, trans fats, and certain additives and food coloring
  • Radiation

These activities can cause cell damage and, ultimately, oxidative stress. These are believed to reduce the risks associated with oxidative stress.

The body can produce its own antioxidants, known as endogenous antioxidants. However, your body can also use them found in food, which is known as exogenous antioxidants.

Dietary these include:

  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin A
  • Copper
  • Selenium
  • Zinc
  • Phytochemicals in plants

Phytochemicals are non-nutrient antioxidants found in foods, and they’re some of the most familiar. Examples include lycopene (a type of carotenoid) in tomatoes, anthocyanin (a type of flavonoid) in cranberries, beta-carotene (a type of carotenoid) in carrots and resveratrol (a type of polyphenol) in red wine.

Popular Sources

  • Vitamin C: Oranges, broccoli, strawberries, spinach and bell peppers
  • Vitamin E: Avocados, nuts, whole grains and seeds
  • Vitamin A: Sweet potatoes, carrots and egg yolks
  • Copper: Lean meats, seafood, nuts and milk
  • Zinc: Lean meats, seafood, nuts and milk
  • Selenium: Seafood, nuts, whole grains, lean meat and offal
  • Lutein: Green leafy vegetables and corn
  • Anthocyanins: Grapes, eggplants and berries
  • Beta-carotene: Carrots, apricots, pumpkin, spinach and parsley
  • Allium sulfur compounds: Onions, leeks and garlic
  • Lycopene: Tomatoes, watermelon and grapefruit
  • Manganese: Lean meat, seafood, nuts and milk
  • Polyphenols: Thyme, oregano, red wine, dark chocolate and tea
  • Flavonoids: Green tea, citrus, red wine, apples and onions
  • Lignans: Bran, sesame seeds, vegetables and whole grains
  • Catechins: Tea and red wine
  • Isoflavonoids: Tofu, soybeans, milk, peas and lentils

Each has its own function, which is why it’s so important to eat a diet that’s rich and varied. You can use recipes from OSTEGO to make sure you’re integrating these critical elements into your diet every day.

How do Antioxidants Affect the Body?

You know that they fight against free radicals, but how? They can neutralize free radicals by either:

  • Breaking them down to render them harmless
  • Providing an extra electron to make the pair

Antioxidants halt the process of free radical formation, but they can also help improve immune function (2).

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Your immune system relies on cell-to-cell communication to function properly. Damage to the cells in the system can hinder your immune response. The neutralizing effects of them can help prevent damage to immune cells, allowing your immune system to function properly.

The Bottom Line

Antioxidants are compounds that fight against free radical damage. It’s impossible to avoid exposure to free radicals, but a healthy lifestyle and diet can help ensure your body has enough to prevent damage and disease.


1 – Lobo, V., Patil, A., Phatak, A., & Chandra, N. (2010, July). Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. 

2 – Hughes, D. A. (1999, February). Effects of dietary antioxidants on the immune function of middle-aged adults. 

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