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Labels on everything from chocolate to pomegranate juice to moisturizer scream the benefits of antioxidants. And we're happy to report that it's not just hype. One study after another has shown that antioxidants help prevent cancer and heart disease, safeguard memory, reduce the risk of degenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, protect joints, soothe pain, reduce muscle soreness and fatigue, avert blindness caused by macular degeneration and cataracts, and even ward off wrinkles.
That's all amazing news, but it begs two big questions: What exactly are antioxidants? And how can this super antioxidant possibly fight off such a wide array of health problems? We investigated these warriors of the health world and discovered how they patrol every part of our body, repairing damaged molecules that if allowed to run rampant would accelerate aging and disease. By the time you're done reading this, you'll want every meal you eat -- and every product you put on your skin -- to be packed with antioxidant power.
When Radicals Attack
Before we can get to the "anti," let's explain the "oxidant" part. Unless you're a monk living in the Himalayas, eating pure food, breathing pristine air, and thinking Zen thoughts 24/7, you're constantly being bombarded by negative elements -- from pollution to chemicals to UV rays -- that damage your cells. Even your own body produces stress hormones and toxic chemical reactions. These toxins weaken the molecules in your cells, causing them to lose an electron -- a unit in the cell that carries electrical charges and allows your cells to work together. These electron-deprived molecules, called free radicals, or oxidants, try to make up for their inadequacy by stealing electrons from other molecules; this damages, or oxidizes, those cells and turns them into electron-swiping free radicals too. Call it the invasion of the electron snatchers.
Once a free radical is created, the damage spreads fast. Free radicals in your blood vessels -- usually caused by things like deep-fried foods, cigarette smoke, or air pollution -- change the structure of the (bad) LDL cholesterol so it becomes more liable to gum up your arteries and cause heart problems. Sunlight and air pollution can create free radicals in your eyes, where they damage retinal or corneal cells, leading to cataracts and blindness, and in skin cells, where they damage cell DNA, raising the risk of skin cancer and accelerating wrinkle formation. And that's just for starters: "Free radicals can damage any cells that get in their way," says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and director of the antioxidant lab at Tufts University in Boston.
Thankfully, there's a nutrient police force that can deal with these delinquents. Even better, you can find them in the foods you love -- not just fruits and veggies but in wine, chocolate, and even beef. As their name implies, antioxidants stop the oxidative damage by replacing a molecule's kidnapped electron without damaging other molecules; this disarms free radicals and turns them back into law-abiding members of cellular society.
Antioxidants do more than rescue cells in distress. Like special ops agents, they're designed to take on specific enemies: Isothiocyanates, found in broccoli, home in on pollutants like nicotine and smog and help prevent them from causing cancer. Vitamin C blocks the uncontrolled cell division that leads to tumors. Selenium fires up the genes needed to break down carcinogens. Antioxidants are like a million microscopic Jack Bauers on a mission to save your bod from the inside out.
The magnificent seven
The same evolutionary process that transformed us from hairy hunchbacks with underbites to smooth-skinned consumers of whitening toothpaste also gave us the ability to fight free radicals on our own. Our bodies make a variety of antioxidants (all with tongue-twisting names, like superoxide dismutase) that break down the free radicals that can form during normal cell metabolism.
Unfortunately, no matter how much overtime they put in, internally produced antioxidants can't battle all the free radicals flying around -- especially in today's world of mercury-filled fish and Hummer fumes. Again, evolution helps us out by filling our food supply with these molecular superheroes. "Our bodies evolved to take advantage of protective substances found in the foods available to us," Blumberg says.
Each day scientists are discovering more amazing ways antioxidants keep us alive and well -- and they're still discovering new varieties. But these seven heavy hitters have the most research to back them up. Fill up your plate with the following nutrients and start mowing down those free-radical bastards.
Selenium: This overachiever isn't annoying like the teacher's pet back in high school. The trace mineral does double duty -- it acts as an antioxidant itself and speeds up your body's natural antioxidant-making process. In a study at Cornell University and the University of Arizona of 1,312 patients with skin cancer, those who got 200 micrograms of selenium daily for 10 years reduced their risk of dying from any cancer -- not just skin cancer -- by 18 percent, compared with those who took a placebo.
Shoot for the DV of 55 micrograms
Best food sources: Brazil nuts (95.8 mcg per nut), snapper (41.6 mcg per 3 ounces), and shrimp (33.7 mcg per 3 ounces)
Vitamin E: The health-conscious side of us appreciates that this antioxidant fights heart disease, boosts immunity, and helps stop cell damage that leads to skin cancer. But let's face it: We love that this vitamin also keeps the ravages of time from showing up on our face. In a Korean study, mice exposed to ultraviolet sunlight were less likely to wrinkle when they consumed vitamin E (along with a host of other antioxidants).
Shoot for the DV of 15 milligrams
Best food sources: Sunflower seeds (10.3 mg per ounce), hazelnuts (4.3 mg per ounce), and peanut butter (2.9 mg per 2 tablespoons)
Vitamin C: It's not just for colds anymore. Now it protects your DNA and helps your body use vitamin E more efficiently. Research has shown that C has a talent for protecting blood vessels and reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. In a six-year study of 5,197 people at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, those who consumed the highest amounts of vitamin C had the lowest risk of stroke.
Shoot for at least the DV of 75 milligrams
Best food sources: Papaya (187.9 mg per fruit), bell peppers (119 mg per cup), and broccoli (81.2 mg per cup)
Carotenoids: This pigment helps protect your eyes and skin from sun damage. In a study of 5,836 people in the Netherlands, consumption of beta-carotene -- one of many carotenoids -- was found to reduce the risk of macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness.
Shoot for: Scientists have no standard goal for carotenoids other than the DV of 2,310 international units (IU) for vitamin A (a form of beta-carotene).
Best food sources: Carrots, butternut squash, and spinach
Isothiocyanates: These antioxidants put cancer-causing enzymes in a headlock. In a study of more than 1,400 people at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, researchers found that people who ate more isothiocyanate-rich foods reduced their risk of bladder cancer by 29 percent.
Shoot for: Scientists have no standard goal for isothiocyanates.
Best food sources: Broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower
Polyphenols: Raise a glass of pinot noir to polyphenols -- they've turned our favorite vice into a virtue. Researchers at Columbia University studied 980 people and found that those who drank up to three glasses per day of wine -- rich in flavonoids, a polyphenol -- were less likely to develop memory-loss problems such as dementia or Alzheimer's disease. In a test-tube study at the Leeds Dental Institute in the UK, the polyphenols in cocoa reduced the growth of two types of bacteria that can trigger gum disease.
Shoot for: Scientists have no standard goal for polyphenols.
Best food sources: Dark chocolate (the higher the cocoa content, the better), red wine, tea, and coffee
Coenzyme Q10: Its nickname sounds like R2D2's cousin -- and CoQ10 is a cell-protecting machine. It's also been linked with the prevention of migraines, which it may accomplish by guarding brain cells. In a study of 42 migraine patients in Zurich, those who took CoQ10 had half as many headaches over three months as those who took a dummy pill. The enzyme may also help lower blood pressure.
Shoot for: Scientists have no standard for CoQ10.
Best food sources: Lean beef, chicken breast, and fish (all types).
Anti-Up Your Skin Care
Foil free radicals from the outside with antioxidant-rich products
You know you should eat them; but should you wear them, too? Yes. Topical antioxidants block free radicals in the environment (like sunlight and air pollution) and keep them from penetrating deeper into the skin. The mad scientists in the best beauty labs figured out how to shrink antioxidant molecules so they can enter through pores (which is why vitamin C and CoQ10 creams will work but wearing papaya slices or slabs of beef on your face won't). Try the following antioxidant-rich beauty treats and soon you'll look dewy enough to land a spot in High School Musical 3.
Sunscreen: "Some UV light can penetrate sunscreen, either because the sunscreen does not have a high enough SPF or because you didn't apply it thickly enough or often enough," says David H. McDaniel, M.D., director of the Institute of Anti-Aging Research and assistant professor of clinical dermatology and plastic surgery at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Virginia Beach. "Antioxidants help counteract the free-radical damage from those rays, as well as the damage from other oxidant sources, such as smoking and ozone pollution."
Our pick: Neutrogena Age Shield Sunblock SPF 45 ($11.50, drugstore.com)
Skin soother/night cream: Free radicals don't sleep, so having antioxidants in your nightly skin-care routine helps, says Howard Murad, M.D., a dermatologist in El Segundo, California, and associate clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA. And if your cream reads like the menu at a smoothie stand, that's a good thing: Coffeeberry helps repair skin-cell DNA, and the fruity fave pomegranate may help strengthen cell membranes, leaving you with an overall fresh, healthy look.
Our pick: John Masters Organics pomegranate facial nourishing oil ($30 for 2 oz, johnmasters.com)
Wrinkle fighter: Antioxidants -- vitamins A and C and CoQ10 in particular -- erase those fine lines that freak us out more than a bad hair day. But in skin care, when it comes to antioxidants, the more the merrier. "Multiple antioxidants have been shown in studies to be more effective than single antioxidants," says Great Neck, New York, dermatologist Jeannette Graf, M.D., author of Stop Aging, Start Living. For example, vitamin C kicks vitamin E into a higher gear, so the two are more powerful together.
Our picks: Clinique Continuous Rescue antioxidant moisturizer for face ($40 for 1.7 oz, clinique.com); Juice Beauty Green Apple SPF 20 Antioxidant Body Moisturizer for body ($34 for 10 oz, juicebeauty.com)