Antioxidants work at different speeds

Research shows that different antioxidants work at different speeds; so what antioxidants slow down ageing the quickest?

The Government’s national ‘5 a day’[1] health campaign is well known throughout the population but how many of us actually hit the recommended 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day? A recent study by Imperial College London suggests that it’s actually more like 10 pieces of fruit and vegetable a day to live long and healthy lives.[2] One study[3] compared people who ate no fruit and vegetables versus those who ate 200g (1 small banana is approximately 80g, ½ bag spinach leaves is 100g etc.) or 800g per day and found those that ate 200g fruit and vegetables had reduced risk of:

cardiovascular disease by 13% while 800g cut the risk by 28%
cancer by 4%, while 800g cut the risk by 13%
of premature death by 15%, while 800g cut the risk by 31%

It’s not just the amount but also the type of plant matter we eat that makes a difference to our health. Nutritional therapists are keen to encourage people to eat a rainbow of different coloured fruits and vegetables each and every day because of the vast array of antioxidant compounds contained within different coloured plants. So why is this so important?

Oxygen is a highly reactive atom involved in oxidation reactions throughout the body and is capable of becoming part of potentially damaging molecules inside the cells known as ‘free radicals’. At certain levels, these free radicals damage healthy cell membranes and important organelles inside the cells, such as the nucleus and mitochondria, causing them to lose their structure and function and speed up the ageing process. Antioxidants are our defence against free radical damage, and are critical for slowing down the internal symptoms of ageing in the body, as well as the visible external signs of ageing on the skin.

Of course, oxygen is an element indispensable for life required by the mitochondria in the cells to produce cell energy (ATP); this means free radicals are actually produced as natural by-products of metabolic processes. In fact, at low or moderate levels specific free radicals (known as reactive oxygen species, ROS) may actually exert beneficial effects on cellular responses and immune function, so they’re not all bad![4]

Other factors that increase cellular free radical production include:

  • Inflammation
  • Exercise
  • Stress
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Environmental pollutants, e.g. pesticides
  • Radiation
  • Dietary refined sugar and poor quality fats

At high concentrations, ROS and other free radicals can overwhelm the body’s natural antioxidant systems, including superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione[5] (often called the body’s master antioxidant) and create what is often called ‘oxidative stress’; the deleterious process that damages cell structure and function. Oxidative stress has been implicated in ageing and poor health, as well as the development of chronic and degenerative conditions such as cancer, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.[6]

We therefore cannot stop the production of free radicals, but we can minimise their production and exposure to damage and accelerated ageing through our lifestyle and supporting the body’s natural antioxidant systems. Absorption of antioxidants from the diet also helps protect cells and tissues from any potential free radical damage.[7]

And this is where vegetables and fruits come into play. They are rich in nutrients including minerals like zinc and magnesium required for glutathione and SOD production, as well as containing a range of different antioxidants and phytonutrients; from carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin found in yellow and green vegetables, specifically offering protection to the eye and reducing ageing of retinal tissue in conditions such as macula degeneration[8]; flavonoids such as quercetin in onions and apples with their immune boosting effects[9]; and polyphenols in green tea which offer anti-ageing benefits.[10] Many fruit and vegetable are also high in Vitamins C and E offering yet more forms of antioxidant protection to the cells. In fact, studies show that vegetarian and vegan diets reduce the incidence of disease, many linked with high levels of oxidative stress.[11]

You can also supplement the diet with organic citrate forms of zinc and magnesium, as well as Vitamins C and E and phytonutrients like lutein, zeaxanthin and quercetin in a broad-spectrum antioxidant formulation to boost antioxidant levels.

But do all antioxidants work equally? Research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry has shown how antioxidant compounds in lettuce leaves work at different speeds in the body, offering cellular protection over various timescales.[12]

The researchers used an imaging technique to watch the activity of antioxidant compounds in three types of lettuce leaves – the red coloured ‘Oak leaf’, the green and red ‘Marvel of four seasons’ and the green ‘Batavia’ lettuce. They observed how the Batavia variety contained slow and intermediate paced antioxidants, whilst ‘Marvel of four seasons’ had fast, intermediate and slow moving compounds and the red leaved type had rapid and intermediate antioxidant actions. Studies like this highlight the importance of including a range of different plants in your daily diet to not only to provide different types of antioxidants but also to offer different speeds and coverage of antioxidant protection.

So it seems that we can protect ourselves from oxidative stress and reduce the ageing process through lifestyle choices such as reducing refined sugar in the diet, reducing exposure to environmental toxins, managing stress, as well as ensuring we at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

If consuming all that fruit and vegetable sounds difficult then here’s our guide to five easy ways to boost your daily veg intake:

  • Use more vegetables that you usually would, e.g. cooking a casserole with onions and carrots then add in some fennel, tomatoes and a squash or sweet potato.
  • Shred your veg! Use a food processor or mandolin to finely slice different colour cabbages, onions and carrots to make a tasty homemade slaw. Smaller pieces of vegetables are easier to digest and you can eat more of them!
  • Thrown in a handful of spinach, 1 small banana, ½ avocado, handful frozen blueberries into a blender with some almond milk and 1 date and hey presto – you have eaten 4 portions of vegetable in one easy breakfast smoothie.
  • Substitute carbs for vegetables, e.g. courgette spaghetti or cauliflower rice.
  • Use leftover vegetables in a soup simply boiling with stock and adding some lentils, beans or chickpeas to make a nutritious and tasty lunch, not to mention reducing food waste.

Enjoy great health today by boosting your antioxidant levels through vegetables, fruit and carefully chosen antioxidant supplements.


  3. Aune et al (2017) Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality—a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. Int J Epidemiol 46,:1029–1056
  4. Lobo (2010) Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacogn Rev. 2010 Jul-Dec; 4(8): 118–126
  5. Kidd PM (1997) Glutathione: Systemic protectant against oxidative and free radical damage. Altern Med Rev 1:155-176
  6. Moylan JS et al (2007) Oxidative stress, chronic disease, and muscle wasting. Muscle Nerve 35(4):411-29
  7. Lobo (2010) Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacogn Rev. 2010 Jul-Dec; 4(8): 118–126
  8. Kidd PM (1997) Glutathione: Systemic protectant against oxidative and free radical damage. Altern Med Rev 1:155-176
  9. Lawler (2017) Lutein and Zeaxanthin Supplement Use and Macular Pigment Change Over 14 years in the Second Carotenoids and Age-Related Eye Diseases Study (CAREDS2), an Ancillary Study to the Women’s Health Initiative. FASEB J 31
  10. Govers (2018) Review of the health effects of berries and their phytochemicals on the digestive and immune systems. Nutrition Revs 76:29-46
  11. Eunmiri Roh, Jong-Eun Kim (2014)Molecular mechanisms of green tea polyphenols with protective effects against skin photoaging. Critical Rev Food Sci Nutr 57:1631
  12. Dinu M, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A, Sofi F. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017 Nov 22;57(17):3640-3649
  13. Huy et al (2008) Free Radicals, Antioxidants in Disease and Health. Int J Biomed Sic 4:89-96

Written By:
Elisabeth Philipps

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