The Unsung Role Of Antioxidants In The Immune System
The immune system needs a variety of different nutrients for it to run at its best. It’s vital that the body has a strong immune system, because it is the first line of defense against disease and illness. Having a weakened immune system can lead to frequent infections, infections with more severe symptoms and worsened outcomes, and chronic illness.
When it comes to specific nutrients, vitamins such as vitamin C and D are both widely known to help the immune system. But what you may not know is that there is far more needed by the immune system for it to keep you safe from invisible threats. One such group of vital nutrients is antioxidants.
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are a range of molecules tasked with fighting off free radicals within the body. A free radical is an atom, molecule, or ion that can cause harm if there are too many of them in your system. Technically speaking, a free radical has a valence electron that is unpaired, or on its own. These unpaired electrons are what causes the radicals to be so chemically reactive within the body. The role of antioxidants is to give these free radicals an electron to neutralize, or switch off, their chemically reactive properties.
Since free radicals can lead to the development of many diseases, it’s crucial that the body have enough antioxidants to help balance the levels between the two. The antioxidants used to turn off free radicals can be found both in the body, and in the food that you eat.
What types of nutrients are considered antioxidants?
There are many different vitamins and other nutrients that act as antioxidants within the body. Some are produced by the body, while others can be consumed. The specific antioxidants that are made by the body include glutathione and alpha lipoic acid. The most widely known nutritional antioxidants are vitamins A, C, and E.
Other antioxidants you can get through diet or supplementation include:
- Beta-carotene (Vitamin A), which can be found in carrots, sweet potatoes, and spinach.
- Lycopene, which can be found in tomatoes, grapefruit, and watermelon.
- Lutein and zeaxanthin, which can be found in green leafy vegetables.
- Selenium, which can be found in meats such as pork, beef, or chicken.
- Manganese, which can be found in whole grains, nuts, soybeans, and some spices, or in seafood items such as clams, oysters, and mussels.
Many plant-based foods contain antioxidants such as flavonoids, catechins, polyphenols, and flavones.
What can free radicals do to the body?
When there are too many free radicals in the body, it can lead to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a reaction from a build-up in free radicals that can lead to a myriad of different health problems because of the way it damages cells, proteins, and DNA. Specific health conditions that can arise partly due to chronic oxidative stress include neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, and diabetes.
Free radicals can form as a result of many different lifestyle factors. Some such factors include:
- Air pollution
- Alcohol intake
- Excessive consumption of minerals such as iron, magnesium, copper, or zinc
- Poor diet with high sugar and high polyunsaturated fatty acids
- Radiation from various sources including sunbathing
- Too much intense exercise
Harmony needs to occur between free radicals and antioxidants to help combat oxidative stress.
What do antioxidants do for the body?
Antioxidants are designed to limit the damage done by free radicals by taming the number of them in the system. When they are able to do so by handing out electrons, they can help lower, reduce, or avoid oxidative stress altogether. This is vital because of all the damage that oxidative stress can do to the body and the diseases and conditions it can increase the risk of you developing.
How do antioxidants help the immune system?
The immune system has its own inflammatory response. When inflammation is triggered, it is so that white blood cells can release the chemicals that are needed to increase blood flow to the injury or infection. This localized attack on the pathogen is a sign that things are working as they should. However, when that inflammation is too high (which could be caused by oxidative stress), the immune system suffers because the cells can become damaged.
Antioxidants protect the body against the cell damage that could be caused by a high amount of free radicals. Antioxidants have also been shown to be a helpful aid in the fight against unnecessary inflammation. Since antioxidants are designed to combat oxidative stress that leads to high levels of inflammation, they indirectly lead to better immune function.
Do antioxidants strengthen the immune system?
Dietary antioxidants can help to strengthen the immune system if it is weakened by oxidative stress. Research has also found that supplementation with antioxidants could help to improve immune responses within the body and lead to a strengthened system. One such study found that antioxidants such as vitamins E, C, and A can aid immune health by increasing the activity of certain cells play a role in tumor immunity.
Being healthy and having a well-functioning immune system go hand in hand, and antioxidants are a huge help in keeping everything running as it should.