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Aging is fun when it means celebrating milestone birthdays that allow us “grown-up” privileges such as driving or getting into a nightclub. When we reach middle age, however, seeing the years march on generally becomes far less appealing, especially when it means a progressive physical and mental decline.
One worrisome aspect of aging is that many people become more susceptible to infections and diseases the older they get. As a result, it can be difficult sometimes to separate normal, age-related health changes from the onset of an infection or debilitating disease.
For example, a common belief is that people become cranky, depressed, and withdrawn as they age. But people’s personalities actually don’t change that much as they grow older. Rather, studies have shown that significant changes in personality and behavior may be an early indication of disease or dementia.
Aging can and does affect cells in every major organ in your body. While science doesn’t have all the answers, we do know that there are steps we can take right now that can help delay many of the adverse effects of aging. It all starts with antioxidants and something called the “free radical theory of disease and aging.”
You’ve likely heard the terms “antioxidants” and “free radicals.” But what exactly are they?
Antioxidants are molecules which neutralize harmful free radicals and protect vital cellular structures in your body from their damaging effects. Many antioxidants can be obtained naturally from the foods you eat. Your body also contains antioxidant enzyme systems.
To understand why antioxidants are essential for your health, you first need to understand what free radicals are and what they do.
Free radicals are highly reactive chemicals that are formed daily in your body – usually in manageable amounts – as a result of normal metabolic activity. Because they are unstable, free radicals typically attack the nearest stable molecule and “steal” its electron. When the “attacked” molecule loses its electron, it becomes a free radical itself, thus beginning a chain reaction.
Once this process starts it has a domino effect, damaging vital structures such as the outer protective membrane of your body’s cells, cellular proteins, and even DNA.
One type of free radicals known as reactive oxygen species (ROS) is made in your body when oxygen is used to burn fuel and create energy. Getting rid of ROS is essential for life and is normally carried out by your body’s antioxidant enzyme system.
However, when too much ROS or other free radicals are formed – for example, from exposure to toxic chemicals, infections, and diseases – and your body’s detoxification enzyme system is no longer able to cope, it leads to a situation known as “oxidative stress.”
Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle is creating more free radical attacks and oxidative stress than the body is equipped to handle. This is primarily due to the ever-increasing levels of toxic chemical pollution that most of us are regularly exposed to. This includes factory and automobile exhaust, UV radiation from the sun, cigarette smoke, pesticides, herbicides, household cleaners, and hundreds of other synthetic products in every aspect of our environment.
Oxidative stress and other forms of free radical-induced damage contribute to overall aging. It’s also believed to be involved in the development of heart disease and stroke, as well as high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other age-related conditions. This is known as the “free radical theory of disease and aging.”
Fortunately, there is a simple yet effective way of reducing the effects of free radicals. It’s by providing your body with the right nutrition by consuming anti-aging foods and high-quality supplements which contain free radical-fighting antioxidants.
The primary naturally occurring antioxidants in our foods are vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Selenium is included in this list because it’s a trace metal needed for the proper function of one of the body’s antioxidant enzyme systems.
Since your body cannot make these four critical micronutrients, it is vital that you get them from your daily diet.
Vitamin E is the collective name for a group of related fat-soluble antioxidants found naturally in apricots, nuts such as almonds and hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, certain oils, whole grains including wheat germ, and green leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.
Vitamin E prevents the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and counters lipid peroxidation, a process by which free radicals damage cell membranes. In this way, vitamin E can help to prevent or delay chronic diseases associated with free radicals.
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin antioxidant present in citrus fruits and juices, peppers, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, kale, cantaloupe, kiwi, and strawberries. Unlike most animals, we humans cannot make vitamin C in our bodies, so we have to get it from our diet.
Vitamin C has been shown to regenerate other antioxidants, including vitamin E, and combats free-radical formation caused by pollution and cigarette smoke.
Many studies have correlated high vitamin C consumption with low rates of cancer, especially of the mouth, larynx, and esophagus. Research is ongoing to determine whether vitamin C might help prevent or delay the development of cardiovascular disease and other diseases in which oxidative stress may be a trigger.
Beta-Carotene is a carotenoid antioxidant present in some animal foods (e.g., liver, egg yolk, milk, and butter). It’s also found in plant-based foods including spinach, carrots, squash, broccoli, yams, tomato, cantaloupe, peaches, and grains.
Beta-carotene is a provitamin A compound that is converted into vitamin A in our bodies, although it is less easily absorbed than preformed vitamin A. It’s important to be aware that vitamin A itself has no antioxidant properties and may even be harmful in very high doses, especially when taken as a supplement.
Selenium is a trace element, nutritionally essential for humans, that is present naturally in many foods and is also available as a dietary supplement. Plant-based sources of selenium include Brazil nuts (highest source), mushrooms, beans, sunflower seeds, brown rice, oatmeal, and spinach.
The good news is that most foods that contain antioxidants (e.g., all fruits & veggies) can be considered “anti-aging” to some extent. However, certain foods have extra benefits when it comes to fighting disease and slowing down the effects of aging.
How many of these four anti-aging foods are you consuming regularly?
#1 – Blueberries
Blueberries, which belong to the same North American family as cranberries and bilberries, have been shown to lower cholesterol levels, improve glucose control and insulin sensitivity, and lower the risk of subsequent heart disease and diabetes.
These delicious fruits have the highest antioxidant capacity of all fresh fruit because of their anthocyanin, vitamin C, and vitamin E content. Blueberries also contain significant amounts of vitamin A, selenium, zinc, and iron.
Excitingly, blueberries have been shown to help improve memory. In a study involving older adults, 12 weeks of blueberry consumption improved their brain function and memory scores.
Blueberries have also been shown to help slow down age-related vision loss in clinical studies, especially macular degeneration, cataracts, and other retinal disorders. This is because blueberries contain the carotenoid antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to directly benefit retinal health.
Additionally, blueberries may help to protect skin against free radical damage because of sun exposure. Regular blueberry consumption has been shown to reduce muscle soreness after exercise, especially running. Just be sure to consume organic blueberries, otherwise you could be taking in harmful pesticides along with the berries. (Tip: wild blueberries grown in an area free from pesticides are even better!
#2 – Green Tea
Green tea contains many powerful antioxidants, including polyphenols known as catechins, which can benefit the body by fighting free radical-induced susceptibility to disease and adverse effects of aging.
Research published by the Journal of Indian Society of Periodontology in 2012 reports that people who regularly drink green tea are less likely to get common bacterial and viral infections. In other words, green tea consumption assists in boosting the immune system.
The Ohsaki National Health Insurance Cohort Study that followed over 40,000 Japanese participants for 11 years showed that participants who drank five or more cups of green tea daily had a significantly lower risk of dying due to all causes, especially cardiovascular disease, likely by lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Drinking green tea regularly has also been associated with a reduced risk of stroke.
Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) is the most abundant polyphenol antioxidant in green tea. Laboratory studies published in the Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics have indicated that EGCG and other green tea antioxidants may be toxic to cancer cells, while population studies suggest that green tea consumption may be associated with a lower risk for many cancers.
#3 – Pomegranates
Pomegranates are incredibly healthy fruits, chock full of antioxidants, antibacterial, and antiviral properties. They are an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and folic acid.
Traditionally, pomegranates are believed to be so useful for maintaining healthy blood circulation that some doctors recommend eating them regularly to regain strength after a long illness. Pomegranates have also been used to assist with clearing up the skin and lowering blood pressure, along with relieving pain, the severity of arthritis, and joint inflammation associated with osteoarthritis.
According to another study, antioxidants in pomegranates – including ellagic acid and punicalagin – can prevent harmful oxidization of LDL cholesterol, one of the first steps in the development of heart disease. A 2014 study in the journal Advanced Biomedical Research showed that regular consumption of pomegranate juice has been shown to reduce atherosclerotic lesions, lowering the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
You’ve likely heard that eating fruits and vegetables can help to lower cancer risk. One reason is that fruits & veggies contain powerful plant chemicals known as flavonoids. Pomegranates are an excellent source of these cancer-fighting flavonoid antioxidants.
#4 – Turmeric
Turmeric – the yellow-colored root spice in curry dishes – has a long history of use in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine. Modern science is still uncovering a growing list of diseases that may be effectively and safely treated by the more than 300 bioactive components in turmeric.
Evidence presented in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 2009 suggests a close link between inflammation, oxidative stress, and the risk of developing many chronic diseases. A study assessing the effectiveness of various anti-inflammatory compounds found that curcumin – one of the main bioactive ingredients in turmeric – was one of the most effective, comfortably beating aspirin and ibuprofen.
Many diseases are triggered or made worse by inflammation, including:
Curcumin and other curcuminoid antioxidants in turmeric can help to support healthy inflammation levels in the body.
One interesting point about brain health is that the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in older Indian adults is 4-5 times less than that of American adults. Some experts believe this is because Indians consume between 25-50 milligrams (mg) of turmeric daily in their food over their entire lifetimes, and preliminary scientific evidence appears to support this view.
There you have it, four anti-aging foods to include in your daily diet.
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How many of these anti-aging foods are you eating regularly?