Unleashing the Power of Antioxidants for a Longer Life

By Eva Selhub, MD Instructor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School and Clinical Associate in Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital Author of The Love Response and Your Brain on Nature

Posted on | By Eva Selhub, MD

If you are interested in powerful anti-aging, feeling and looking young and healthy, there are thousands of natural molecules that can help you get there. They're called antioxidants.

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A good way to understand what antioxidants are and why we need them is to think of the human aging process as being similar to an aging car: Over its lifespan, it will be driven over rough terrain, be exposed to rain, strong rays from the sun and possibly snow. Without regular maintenance and tender loving care, the aging car can be prone to rust as a result of a process called oxidation.

Oxidation also occurs in the aging and stressed human body. In this case, oxygen molecules that are missing an electron (free oxygen radicals) fly about looking for something to fill in the missing gap and end up causing sparks to fly, general mayhem and the aging human body to rust! Oxidative stress has been linked to a myriad of health problems, including cancer, heart disease, dementia and autoimmune disorders.

The good news is that antioxidants are like scavengers: perusing your body to find, neutralize and get rid of these free oxygen radicals. Research shows these wonderful molecules can not only prevent and treat a whole array of health problems, they may also extend your life. 

Antioxidants can help with heart disease, weight management, inflammation, high blood pressure, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, high cholesterol, eye health and diabetes. Additionally, these molecules can also act as stress busters. The following are a few antioxidants you may not have heard of, which you can find in the everyday foods you may already love.

Antioxidants to Watch For

Chicoric Acid to Bust Stress

Seeing as how I specialize in stress physiology and researching ways we can offset the negative health consequences of stress, I was very excited to discover chicoric acid, a natural stress buster. This antioxidant is found in basil, deep green lettuce, chicory root, and dandelion, and is one of the main phenolic compounds in Echinacea. Studies have shown chicoric acid can be protective against pain, inflammation, oxidation, diabetes, liver disease and Alzheimer’s disease. New research shows that it can also help with depression. It appears that chicoric acid can raise the levels of the “feel good” molecules or neurotransmitters (like dopamine, serotonin) and lowers levels of stress hormones like cortisol. The opposite biochemical process happens when you experience stress.

I personally like to use dandelion root as a tincture, placing approximately 30 drops in a glass of water or tea daily. I recommend increasing the dose to two or three times a day when experiencing more stress-related symptoms, like muscle aches, headaches or sleep disturbance. Otherwise, you can have a daily dose of chicoric acid by throwing basil, dandelion, deep green lettuce and chicory root into one big salad!

Pterostilbene for a Sharper Memory

There has been a lot of talk about the benefits of red grapes, wine and blueberries. The main antioxidants in these foods are called phytoalexins. You have probably heard of resveratrol, largely derived from the skin of red grapes and known to improve blood flow and insulin sensitivity – and prevent the damage of aging. New research has found that there is another antioxidant from the same family that packs a stronger punch called pterostilbene.

Pterostilbene, unlike resveratrol, actually gets into your cells and through the blood brain barrier. This means it is better at helping your brain and memory, preventing skin damage, metabolizing fat, protecting your heart and improving insulin sensitivity. Better yet, this particular antioxidant has been studied in humans, not just animals. One study showed that older individuals who drank two cups of blueberry juice a day (the active ingredient was pterostilbene) had not only improved memory but also improved cognitive functioning.

You can get your share of this memory booster from cranberries, sparkleberries, ligonberries, rhubarb, peanuts, and, of course, blueberries. Try a cup of mixed berries a day and add a quarter-cup of peanuts two or three times a week for a delicious change. As a supplement, you can take between 50-150 milligrams/day. Recommendations for a 160-pound person are 50mg a day.

C3G, Disease Fighter and Fat Buster

Research is also now showing that the berry family contains a whole slew of other antioxidants that can improve your health. One of them is C3G from the family of anthocyanins. It's found in foods that have a dark pigment as many berries do, like black currants, sweet cherries, bilberries, blackberries and raspberries. The good news is that you can get C3G from other food groups like black beans, black rice, colored corn, red cabbage, red onion and blood red orange juice. 

C3G can do what all the other antioxidants do in terms of fighting disease, but it can also act as a fat buster. Normally when you eat a high-fat diet, the genes for fat storage are turned on, or “up-regulated.” Research shows that C3G turns on or up-regulates the gene expression for fat burning and turns down the expression of the genes for fat storage in animal models.

You would have to eat huge amounts of berries to get this benefit, so you can add a cup of black beans and a cup of black rice to your diet three times a week. One gram of black rice extract can also be taken as a supplement.

PQQ, Fountain of Youth?

Pyrroloquinoline, or PQQ, is found in fermented foods, spinach, mustard greens, fermented soy and beer. Recent studies have shown that PQQ protects nerve cells and can decrease the build up of amyloid, a protein that causes the toxic plaques in Alzheimer’s disease. Research has also found that because of its powerful free radical scavenger capacity, not only can PQQ protect mitochondria (where the biochemical processes of respiration and energy production occur), but it may also promote the spontaneous generation of new mitochondria.

What does this mean? Well, since age-damaged mitochondria cause the rest of your cells to age, helping you form new mitochondria could mean slowing down the aging process. Could it be hello PQQ and goodbye aging?

Remember, no antioxidant stands alone. They work together to help you fight disease and live longer, which means you’re best off eating a balanced diet filled with berries, greens, green tea, nuts, grapes, black beans and rice. The antioxidants also work better when you are taking good care of yourself, which includes being well-rested, exercising, and maintaining a healthy mental state, which includes surrounding yourself with positive people and thoughts.

Article written by Eva Selhub, MD
Instructor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School and Clinical Associate in Medicine, Massachusetts General HospitalAuthor of The...