Ask The Doctor: How Much Is Enough Antioxidants

Can I get enough antioxidants from my food or do I need to take a bunch of supplements?
By Nancy Lonsdorf, MD

I can’t overstate the importance of antioxidants for your health. Every moment, your body churns out potent reactive substances called free radicals, which form as your body “burns” food for energy, detoxifies chemicals, and fights off invading organisms. While free radicals are necessary for life and play a vital role in maintaining health, in excess they damage the body itself and contribute to aging and most major diseases, including heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and cancer. Your body can quickly become overloaded with free radicals through infection, injury, stress, pollutants, drugs, radiation, and other harmful factors.

That’s where antioxidants enter the picture. These compounds neutralize free radicals, keeping their levels in check and preventing damage to healthy tissue. The body produces some antioxidants, and fruits and vegetables contain a wealth of them as well—such as vitamins C and E, selenium, carotenoids like beta-carotene, and flavonoids, including the powerful anthocyanins found in blueberries.

Your wish to get your daily antioxidant “dose” through food falls right in line with ayurvedic approaches to health. A fundamental principle in ayurveda (the healing system of ancient India) teaches that “without proper diet, medicines are of no use. With proper diet, medicines are of no need.” Ayurvedic practitioners consider whole-food nutrition the most healthy and compatible with the body—whereas they generally avoid concentrated doses of isolated nutrients to prevent disturbing the body’s biochemical balance.

For maximum nutritional value, I recommend eating organically grown, vine-ripened foods, freshly picked and freshly prepared with herbs and spices. Simply doubling your intake of fruits and vegetables from five a day to the ideal 10 a day has been shown to raise your antioxidant ability by more than 13 percent in just two weeks. Some antioxidant-rich superfoods include berries, mangosteen, pomegranate, cooked artichokes, prunes, apples, pecans, cherries, plums, and a variety of dried beans and legumes.

For those needing extra nutritional support, the classical ayurvedic texts use samyoga, which is the science of combining plant and mineral ingredients in a balanced way to prevent side effects and enhance the effectiveness of the formula. One well-researched ayurvedic rejuvenator, Amrit Nectar, contains more than 40 herbs and has one of the highest antioxidant ratings ever tested; it also enhances the body’s own antioxidant production as well. You can find this supplement at mapi.com or by calling 800.ALL.VEDA.

3 ways to get started:
1. In addition to noshing on plenty of fruits and vegetables, you can get extra antioxidant protection with these free radical–fighting herbs and spices: clove, oregano, cinnamon, sage, peppermint, thyme, rosemary, coriander, basil, ginger, garlic, and pepper.

2. For maximum freshness and highest antioxidant content, cook your vegetables soon after purchase, since the antioxidant levels in some fruits and vegetables drop off rapidly within days after harvest.

3. No nukes! Don’t cook your veggies in the microwave; nor should you boil or pressure-cook them. Research indicates these cooking methods destroy up to 90 percent of the antioxidants, including vitamin C.

Nancy Lonsdorf, MD, is dean of faculty for Vedic Medicine at Maharishi College of Vedic Medicine in Fairfield, Iowa. She’s also the coauthor, with Maharishi Ayurveda, of The Ageless Woman: Natural Health and Beauty After Forty (MCD Century, 2004).