Fight Free Radicals

A Rainbow Guide to Antioxidants

By Shelley Burns

Originally published in Skin Deep, December/January 2007.

You may have heard that free radicals are external insults that can affect our bodies internally. Some of these external factors are cigarette smoke, air pollutants, and various toxins we ingest, such as some cholesterol-lowering medications, oral contraceptives, and anti-inflammatory medications. But most free radicals are actually produced within our own cells as normal by-products of the conversion of food to energy.

Free radicals can cause oxidative damage to DNA in skin cells. To understand how oxidization takes place in your body, imagine taking a bite out of an apple and leaving it on the counter. In time, it begins to turn brown. This is what occurs in your body. It can lead to altered gene expression, various forms of skin cancer, and such inflammatory processes as skin wrinkling, reddening, rashes, and eczema.

These free radical “hits” cause DNA strands to break completely, or to scramble in such a way that insertion of different letters into the strand takes place, changing the genetic code. They also can activate a protein-nuclear transcription factor B, kappa, which promotes inflammation, immune response, and tumor growth. While it’s tempting to take a supplement to quench free radicals, we often overlook fruits and vegetables with potent antioxidant properties. Thinking of a rainbow when choosing your fruits and vegetables will help you neutralize free radicals.

* Orange, yellow, and bright red are rich in carotenoids.
* Green provides sulfur compounds and indols.
* Purple, black, blue, and magenta are good for flavonoids and phenolics.

The deeper and more vibrant the fruit or vegetable color, the more potent its antioxidant properties. Blueberries, cherries, apricots, and avocados are great choices. As for vegetables, choose sweet peppers, spinach, and tomatoes, to name a few.

Remember, without the entire color complement of fruits and vegetables, free radicals remain active and continue to accumulate in the body, causing oxidative damage. Don’t forget that brown apple! This simple approach will bring you to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—healthier skin, an enhanced immune system, and cancer and heart-protective benefits.