According to a 2007 HealthFocus Trends Report, most consumers are aware of antioxidants and associate them with positive health benefits such as cancer prevention (63%); improved immunity (47%); improved heart health (44%); removing free-radicals (35%); improved memory (28%); eye health (27%); clearer skin (26%); and fewer wrinkles (21%).
While most of us are familiar with antioxidants, we only have a very general understanding of what they are and how they’re beneficial. This article provides an overview of antioxidants and their beneficial role in protecting the skin from aging.
Oxidation and Free-Radicals
Oxidants are toxic byproducts of cells as they metabolize oxygen to create energy. Oxidants include free-radicals, which are atoms with at least one unpaired electron, making them highly reactive. Because of the way free-radicals interact with other cells in an attempt to stabilize, they often cause a cascading effect that ultimately results in damage to other cells.
Metabolism is not the only source of free-radical production. Exposure to ultraviolet light as well as dietary and lifestyle factors all contribute to oxidative stress in our bodies. This is important because one of the theories of aging asserts that cumulative oxidation or oxidative load accelerates the aging process.
Although oxidation is looked upon unfavorably, it has a beneficial effect in health maintenance. That’s because oxidation helps to destroy harmful bacteria and viruses in our body. However, as with many things in life, the issue is of balance. Unfortunately, the modern day diet and lifestyle promotes more oxidative stress than is healthy, which leads to accelerated aging and cell mutations (e.g., cancer).
Role of Antioxidants
Antioxidants restore the body’s balance and inhibit cell damage due to oxidative stress. The body’s naturally occurring antioxidant enzymes, present in nearly every cell include superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), and glutathione peroxidase (Gpx).
Certain antioxidants are better suited to work in specific environments. For example, fat-soluble antioxidants like vitamin E, work in lipid membranes to prevent fats from oxidizing. Vitamin E plays an important role in cardiovascular disease prevention because the vitamin prevents the oxidation of cholesterol. When low density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol is oxidized, it promotes the development atherosclerotic plaques in arteriole walls, thereby leading to the early stages of cardiovascular disease.
Some antioxidants, like vitamin C, work in water-soluble environments. This well-known vitamin works to prevent free-radical damage in the watery parts of cells. And, some antioxidants, like alpha-lipoic acid, work in both fat-soluble and water-soluble environments, making them versatile multi-taskers.
Antioxidants can be further classified as having direct and indirect activity. Vitamins C and E are direct because they have the capacity to directly neutralize a free-radical, thereby stabilizing the molecules in the body. Indirect antioxidants include minerals like selenium, manganese, zinc, and copper. These antioxidants interact with other chemicals in the body to increase the stability of cells, cutting down on the free-radical production through a more complex chain of events.
Recognizing that certain vitamins come in different forms is important as this can affect antioxidant quality and activity. The carotenoid and vitamin E families are good examples.
Vitamin E actually refers to a family of eight compounds – four tocopherols and four tocotrienols – with the members named alpha, beta, delta and gamma. While alpha-tocopherol has the highest vitamin E activity, delta-tocotrienol exerts more antioxidant protective benefits.
The carotenoid family includes over 600 fat-soluble compounds. Only about 10% of these compounds convert into vitamin A, with beta-carotene most often used because of its high conversion rate. However, the majority of carotenoids – including lutein, zeaxanthin, cryptoxanthin, lycopene and alpha-carotene – have little, if any vitamin A activity, but function principally as antioxidants in the body.
Skin Health & Antioxidants
A number of well-designed studies have documented the benefit of oral ingestion of antioxidants to the skin.
A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that vitamins C and E taken internally, combined with the use of sunscreen, provided better protection from both UVA and UVB rays than sunscreen alone. Another study, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology showed that vitamin A has similar capabilities.
Researchers have also determined that green tea polyphenols used orally or topically may reduce the risk of skin cancer.
Yet, another study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, demonstrated that oral supplementation of a combination of carotenoids plus vitamin E protected the skin against erythema (skin redness) when exposed to ultra-violet light.
Large food companies, like Kemin Foods, have also studied the benefit of antioxidants to skin health. The company has examined the relationship of lutein – a carotenoid found predominantly in dark green and yellow vegetables – in protecting the skin from oxidative damage. Lutein is deposited in the epidermis and dermis and helps to protect the skin by absorbing high-energy wavelengths of blue-light and quenching free-radicals that may be produced in the skin after exposure to light and environmental assault.
Regulate Oxidation and Antioxidants for Your Health
Ultimately, the best way to protect your health is to reduce your oxidative load. Less oxidation equals fewer free-radicals and lower potential for cellular damage. The good news? This can best be accomplished by adopting a health-promoting diet and lifestyle.
Limiting sun exposure and using a high SPF sunscreen reduces the effects of ultraviolet radiation. Eating a diet high in color-rich foods ensures that you’re getting plenty of antioxidants. For those individuals who can’t meet the recommended 9 servings of fruit and vegetables a day, then taking a high-quality supplement formulated with a broad range of antioxidants can bridge the gap in diet.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.