While doing some of these blogs that include healthy brain foods, I kept coming across the word antioxidants. They are something that I’ve heard many times are “good for you” but I realized that I do not exactly know what they are. After brushing up on some basic science, I have come to see that they are an important asset to our body’s function and in turn, our mental health.
The issue begins with atoms called free radicals. Our bodies naturally make free radicals and they can be helpful in attacking foreign intruders. However, free radicals also enter the body through things such as unhealthy foods (e.g., high sugar and saturated fats), smoking, alcohol, toxins, and air pollutants which can then overload the natural balance of free radicals.
Atoms like to have their electrons be in pairs and free radicals seek out to pirate an electron from other stable molecules/atoms and can cause damage to DNA, proteins, and cells. This chain reaction can lead to broken or dead cells, can cause lipids (i.e., fatty acids) to get clogged in arteries, or even change DNA code. If there is a prolonged period of too many free radicals, or enough cell damage has occurred, the body will go into oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is linked to many illnesses such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis. There are also many psychological studies examining the effects of oxidative stress and its link with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. There is emerging evidence to suggest that damage from oxidative stress can increase risk of mental illness. This seems logical after considering the potential damage to the brain.
Now enter antioxidants. These atoms do what their name says: inhibits oxidation. If a molecule has lost an electron and has become a free radical, an antioxidant molecule can neutralize a free radical by donating an electron. This process helps to balance out free radicals and thus decrease oxidative stress. Antioxidants can be broken down into two groups: water-soluble, and fat-soluble. Water-soluble works within the fluid that is in and out of cells whereas fat-soluble acts within the cell membranes. For example, vitamins C & E take the lead as important antioxidants, with vitamin C as water-soluble, and vitamin E as fat-soluble. Both forms are important.
Just like their counterpart, the body produces its own antioxidants, but it’s necessary to procure through external sources such as food and vitamins. In particular, foods such as herbs and nuts, are a primary source of antioxidants. Berries are especially rich, and we can also include green tea, coffee, and dark chocolate as a way to stabilize the free radicals.
As with most things in life, balance is the key word. Staying away from unhealthy lifestyles and incorporating fresh and healthy foods into our diet will help to maintain homeostasis between free radicals and antioxidants, which can help lower risk of mental illness.
To learn more about this process check out these articles:
Written by: Kathryn Chambers
Olive Branch Counseling Associates, Inc.