The fine lines are starting to set in, the pounds have been adding up since you turned 40 and you’re becoming more aware of the health conditions that run in your family. Oxidative stress might be a concern and eating antioxidant foods to prevent aging and improve health might be a solution.
Lowering oxidative stress in your body, through eating an anti-inflammatory diet, is one way you can be proactive about your life-long health. Keep reading to find out the what, why and how … without having to buy all the supplements or strange and expensive foods.
What is oxidative stress
Oxidation happens when our bodies process food or any other substance (including the air we breathe) and create something called reactive by-products. These by-products are often referred to as free radicals.
Oxidation also happens when our immune system is active or because of exercise. This short-term oxidation can lead to mild inflammation that is helpful in healing and can have a protective effect in the body.
If we aren’t paying much attend to our eating patterns, lifestyle habits, certain health conditions or environment (ie pollution or radiation), extra free radicals can accumulate and lead to an imbalance. If the imbalance of oxidants and antioxidants happens for a long period of time, the oxidative stress damages the cells in our body and changes the way they work.
When oxidative stress happens over the long-term, it can mean faster aging, chronic inflammation, chronic diseases such as heart diseases or diabetes, cognitive decline or diseases such as Alzheimer’s and a weakened immune system.
Risks for oxidative stress
Let’s start with checking in with your risks. How many of these are part of your current lifestyle?
- eating pattern high in fat, sugar, processed foods
- carrying extra weight around your midsection
- exposure to radiation
- exposure to tobacco products and using alcohol
- certain medications
- exposure to pesticides or industrial chemicals
Once you know your risks, you’ll be better able to do something about it.
The link between oxidative stress and aging
Uncontrolled oxidative stress can speed up the aging process, increase chronic inflammation and lead to a number of diseases. Because our brains need so much oxygen to function, brain cells are especially vulnerable to oxidative stress which can also lead to conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
(read more about this in another article: Chronic Inflammation: Do I have it and what’s the big deal?)
With age, a number of factors are at play when it comes to oxidative stress. Over the years, oxidative damage builds up, antioxidants decrease, oxidation happens more easily and damaged cells are less easily repaired in the body.
This has the potential to start a vicious cycle. Chronic oxidative stress and inflammation feed off each other, increasing age-related health conditions.
This is certainly important when you think about the ways it might impact your life as you get older. But we also know the world is aging and chronic diseases are widespread. It’s estimated that between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years will nearly double from 12% to 22% according to the World Health Organization. You can imagine the possible effects on resources and people’s quality of life!
The effect of oxidation and inflammation on muscle health
Aside from chronic diseases and age-related deterioration, another common concern people link with aging is the loss of muscle mass, also known as sarcopenia. You know, “if you don’t move it, you lose it!”, right? While this can be true for some people, muscle loss is not completely due to aging alone or sitting around too much. It can also happen to younger people.
In the case of muscle loss, there are multiple things that affect our muscle health, including:
- low physical activity
- increased weight
- chronic inflammation
- low protein and/or calorie intakes
- oxidation in the body
Basically, oxidative stress can lower protein creation and lead to decreased muscle being formed. This of course can be concerning since we know that hanging on to your muscle mass is important for so many reasons … balance, independence with daily activities, immune health, metabolism just to name a few. We also know that sarcopenia might predict frailty and poor quality of life in older adults.
When muscle health decreases, risk of sarcopenia increases and that can mean:
- lower metabolism
- insulin resistance
- less muscle mass & strength
Fortunately, strength training and good nutrition can play a role in maintaining cognitive functioning, delaying care dependency and reversing fragility.
More good news is that by paying attention to our risks for oxidation and using an anti-inflammatory diet, we can create more balance in our bodies and prevent the possible side effects of oxidative stress.
How an antioxidant diet lowers oxidative stress
Antioxidants can be made in our body but we also rely largely on those found in our food.
Not surprisingly, whole food plant-based foods have been found to contain the most antioxidants compared to animal-based, including vitamins A, C and E. This way of eating has also been shown to decrease carcinogens and reduce cell damage.
Antioxidants can include those that we get through eating or can be made within our body. Their job is to neutralize free radicals and keep a balance so oxidative stress does not happen. For many people, this balancing act happens naturally and without much thought.
Not only do we get antioxidants from our food, but we also get other nutrients that help antioxidants do their work. For example, minerals such as selenium and zinc help our body’s Antioxidant Defence System. Another example is lycopene which is considered a ‘pro-vitamin’ and is most well-know to be found in tomatoes.
Other examples include the un-named phytochemicals, or phytonutrients, that help kickstart the defence system as well as maintain cells, repair DNA and promote longevity. While we don’t know all of the phytochemicals or how exactly they work, we do know they have important roles in our health.
Antioxidant diet to prevent chronic diseases
With chronic diseases, there is still a lot unknown about which came first, the oxidation or the inflammation. But we do know that there are several ways that oxidation could lead to different conditions. We also know that increased oxidation leads to greater chances of heart disease, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.
It has been proven that in general, people who eat higher amounts of antioxidant-rich foods are less likely to be diagnosed with diseases. Worldwide, people are turning toward diets that give their bodies natural antioxidants, especially as they age.
Research suggests that oxidation of our cells can lead to changes in the blood flow to the heart region. This has been noted in atherosclerosis, diabetes and high blood pressure.
There is also some research showing that oxidative stress could be the main risk factor for some diseases including osteoporosis.
Other conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, stroke and Multiple Sclerosis can involve oxidative stress as both the cause or a side effect.
With an antioxidant diet that includes nuts, berries, coffee, green tea, cocoa and others, heart disease and age-related cognitive decline may be reduced.
Antioxidant diet for the immune system
As our bodies get older, our immune systems naturally become weaker. People with digestive concerns can also experience lower immunity due to problems absorbing nutrition.
Protecting immunity can happen through nutrition as well as other lifestyle factors that promote general health and well-being (keep reading for more about this).
Aside from a weakening immune system, our intakes and appetites often decrease with age. This means that we’re getting fewer of those nutrients known to support the immune system. The immune system might also be blunted as a result of long-term fasting.
Maintaining hydration is another way to support the immune system as it helps control body temperature and helps to flush out bacteria or other harmful substances.
As well, there may be a link between extra body fat and increased inflammation reactions in immune cells. If weight is a concern for you, you might find the article Weight loss for heart health helpful.
While not not exactly related to immunity, we’re learning that people with inflammatory risk factors (including advanced age, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure) are more likely to have poor outcomes if they catch COVID-19. There is still much to be learned about this virus and the side effects, but it may be another reason to reduce any of those inflammatory risk factors you have.
Nutrients that can support the immune system:
- Protein – helps build antibodies and immune system cells, helps in healing and recovery
- A – helps regulate the immune system, keeps skin and other tissues healthy
- D – helps with immune cell functions
- C – helps build healthy skin to keep out germs, is an antioxidant that protects cells from oxidation
- E – is an antioxidant that protects cells from oxidation
- Zinc – supports new immune cells to help the body heal wounds
Top antioxidant foods to eat to lower oxidative stress
First off, its important to understand that no single food will be the key to a long and healthy life.
Secondly, there’s often a big difference between getting an antioxidant from food and getting it from a supplement. Antioxidants from food come packaged together to give us optimal health benefits. When we focus in on 1 nutrient such as in a supplement, it can actually harm our health … but more on that in the next section.
- Brightly coloured fruits and veggies: Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables found in North America are dried apples, dried dates, dried mango, cherries, plums, dried apricots, citrus, prunes, curly kale, artichokes, red and green chilis, olives, red cabbage, beets, spinach, tomatoes, paprika and legumes.
- Berries: has been shown to slow cognitive decline. Top berries common in North America are bilberries, black currants, wild strawberries, blackberries, goji berries and cranberries.
- Whole grains (yup, they have antioxidants!): especially whole grain breads. Top flours for antioxidants are buckwheat, millet, barley
- Cocoa: ie chocolate with higher cocoa contents … however there have been some mixed results about how effective cocoa is for prevention of disease over the long-term
- Coffee: up to 2 cups a day, though more has not been shown to be better
- Green tea: has protective effect on brain functioning and cognition as we age. Studies have shown the more you drink, the better
- Nuts: eating them more than 5 times a week has been shown improve cognitive markers
- Fats and oils: in this category, canola, margarine, butter, corn, soybean have highest antioxidant content
For comparison, food categories with little-to-no antioxidants include: water, dairy, eggs and carbonated beverages
Getting the most antioxidants from foods
A common question I get is whether raw veggies are better than cooked. There is no single right way to cook vegetables that retains the most antioxidants. In some cases cooking lowers antioxidants and in some cases cooking increases them – it depends on the specific veggie and the cooking method. In general though boiling leads to the biggest nutrient losses so steaming, roasting and microwaving (with a little water) are the best ways to go. For example, lycopene, a form of carotenoid found in tomatoes and watermelon, is better released to our body with cooking and as a fat-soluble nutrient, is less affected by cooking methods that involve water.
Some more things to mention about antioxidants in foods:
The total amount of antioxidants in a food is not always the same as the amount of antioxidants that your body will get. How available the antioxidant is to your body can depend on what other nutrients are in the food (ie the food’s matrix), your absorption of nutrients and how they’re metabolized in your body.
There can be large variation in the amount of antioxidant within each category of food – this may depend on where it was grown and the season for example.
About antioxidant supplements for anti-aging
As mentioned already, balance is key. And this is where supplements enter the discussion.
Too many or too few oxidants or antioxidants can be a problem.
There are a couple key reasons that antioxidants might not be the best idea for you:
Single antioxidants can have a ‘pro-oxidant’ effect meaning that they could in fact act like extra free radicals in your body. Its still unknown about what the best combination of antioxidants and doses would be to mimic antioxidants in food.
Food sources are better absorbed and used by the body. Antioxidants also come neatly packaged in their food package (that matrix I mentioned above). They come in the combinations needed and along with other named (or un-named) nutrients that work best together.
Research is not strong enough to show that vitamins are effective antioxidants to help control diseases (based on the most studied ones, vitamins A, C and E).
A couple of antioxidant supplements have shown some promise for people with diseases where oxidation and inflammation are main concerns. It’s important to talk about supplements with your doctor so you can make the most informed choice based on your personal health.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10):
CoQ10 is something that our bodies produce. We’re also able to get it from some foods such as meat and fish. Needed for survival, it’s considered important, though in many cases doesn’t need to be supplemented.
However, there are cases when you can become deficient and taking a supplement may help, including having had a heart attack, taking statins, having certain diseases and aging.
Right now, the information available about CoQ10 shows a strong benefit for people who suffer from fibromyalgia. It may also be helpful for people with heart diseases and type 2 diabetes. Specifically, C0Q10 seems to help lower oxidation of lipids and general oxidation in the body, increase the ability to exercise after a heart attack and increase blood flow for people with conditions where blood flow is decreased.
While it seems this is a fairly safe supplement, there isn’t yet enough research about the long-term effects of taking it.
Melatonin has been seen as powerful in protecting the heart and reducing both cardiac aging as well as other age-related disorders. It does this in 3 ways: neutralizing free radicals directly, helping our antioxidant enzymes work better and disabling those enzymes that help in oxidation.
As we age, our bodies naturally produce less melatonin. Because melatonin acts on many parts of the body, including the heart, less melatonin in our system means less protection in those areas. This results in less protection from heart attack, ischemic heart disease and a cardiac syndrome with angina-like chest discomfort.
Melatonin can be found in a large number of plant species, in plant food and medical herbs. Specifically, the most important dietary sources are wine, olive oil, tomato and beer.
In terms of supplements, given melatonin’s heart-protective effects and general safety, supplements may be an option for you. More research may be needed though to better understand how melatonin protects the heart.
In some cases, melatonin may be more risky and as always, please consult with your doctor before including alcoholic beverages or new supplements to discuss the benefits and possible risks.
Other anti-aging lifestyle factors to consider to lower oxidative stress
We’ve talked about why and how you might tweak your eating to include more antioxidant-rich foods … but diet isn’t the only way you can lower oxidative stress in your 40s and beyond!
In order to lower the amount of oxidation that happens in your body, you might also think about changing up some of your habits and routines.
- Getting enough sleep. Long-term lack of sleep or quality sleep has been shown to increase risks for health conditions. On the other-hand, cognitive decline is lowered when you’re able to get quality sleep.
- Managing stress
- Get moving (aka exercise, physical activity, enjoyable movement … whatever you choose to call it). This is a big one and one that might sound confusing, especially when you may have heard that oxidation happens from exercise. It seems that this kind of oxidation though actually helps your body’s cells to function better!
Like other things, having too much activity or not enough activity has been linked to oxidative stress in older adults. The key is to aim for moderate intensity activity, especially endurance and resistance activities, which are seen to decrease oxidative stress. These kinds of actives can also help decrease age-related sarcopenia, as we talked about
- Quit smoking. As we also talked about already, oxidation happens when your body processes anything that enters it, such as smoke you breathe in. Smokers are known to need extra vitamin C compared to non-smokers for this reason.
- Lowering (or avoiding) your exposure to pollution and harsh chemicals
Taking action on oxidative stress
Eating more foods full of antioxidants is do-able and can happen naturally through real foods. This is especially true if you focus on getting a variety of whole, less-processed, plant-based foods in your eating.
You don’t need expensive supplements or strange foods that only grow in other parts of the world. While it might not sound like the most exciting news, bringing your food choices back-to-basics might help tremendously.
We know that preventative health is often so under-appreciated … and hard to do. When you don’t feel anything wrong with you, its hard to feel like you need to change your habits and routines.
But by making some conscious changes now, you can help to prevent or lower the aging of your body’s functions. This means possibly improving your energy and movement now as well as having more ‘well’ years in the future.
As with all of the topics I talk about with clients, it’s not usually about the food to eat or not, it’s about the how … how do I fit this into what I’m already doing? how do I stick with it and not go back to the old auto-pilot habits? If this is you, you might find the help and accountability you’re looking for in the Nourish your Weight Community on Facebook.
Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on helping people take back control of their health & weight … before it feels like their health controls their life. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.