There's a war raging inside our bodies.
Attacking us are free radicals. These unstable molecules react with healthy cells and break them down, accelerating the aging process. Free radicals pave the way for all manner of maladies, including cancer and heart disease.
Defending us are antioxidants. Found in abundance in certain foods, antioxidants neutralize the free radicals and build health. We are as healthy as our diets.
As a general rule, fruits and vegetables are the best sources of antioxidants. The less you cook them, the better.
"When you pasteurize foods, a great percentage of their health-promoting benefits have been destroyed," says Donnie Yance, a certified nutritionist and clinical herbalist who founded the Center for Natural Healing in Ashland and wrote the book "Herbal Medicine, Healing & Cancer."
"There's very seldom a rule that is across the board," says Yance. "The key is bio-availability."
Not all foods react to heat in the same way. While fruit juices lose much of their antioxidant potential by boiling, light cooking can make antioxidants more bio-available in certain foods like broccoli (steamed) and carrots (cooked in oil), according to Yance.
Raw and fresh are the best bets, and that means eating locally, in season.
"When it comes to diet, we want to look at availability of food," says Yance. "A lot of people are looking for some obscure food from some rare area of the Earth that needs to be brought here to the Rogue Valley. We have an abundance of beautiful berries here."
Berries are particularly high in antioxidants. Blueberries and strawberries are cultivated locally. Blackberries and huckleberries can be free, which can't be beat. If you're willing to look a little farther afield, cranberries are among the strongest natural antioxidants, pound for pound. Pomegranates, from California's Central Valley, are another great source.
Not all antioxidants are created equal.
The main categories of antioxidants, according to the Internet resource WebMD.com, are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and certain minerals — most notably selenium and zinc. These substances provide protection to the body in different ways. We need all these nutrients daily from a balanced diet.
Not only berries, but citrus fruits, honeydew melon, snow peas, yellow and green bell peppers, kale and tomatoes are great natural sources of vitamin C.
Many yellow and orange fruits and vegetables contain beta-carotene. Apricots, cantaloupe, carrots, corn, sweet potatoes, nectarines, peaches, pumpkins and other squashes are great examples.
Vitamin E can be found abundantly in spinach, nuts, mustard and turnip greens, papaya, carrots, sunflower seeds, chard and pumpkin. Broccoli is a true superfood: It is rich in vitamins E, C and beta-carotene.
The best vegetable sources of selenium and zinc are whole grains and nuts. Beef and poultry are sources of both minerals. Tuna is a rich source of selenium, and oysters supply zinc.
Herbs and spices often are overlooked as sources of antioxidants.
"A lot of herbs that are good at that (antioxidants) are herbs that people in traditional societies ingested on a daily basis," says Yance, "Rosemary, sage, ginger, turmeric, green and white tea."
Many herbs that are powerful antioxidants also belong to the class of herbs known as adaptogens, which promote overall body health and efficiency and improve endocrine health, according to Yance. Some of his favorite antioxidant-adaptogen herbs are ginseng, cinnamon and devil's club. Yance encourages his patients to include such herbs, as well as antioxidant fruits and greens, in smoothies.
Increasing our consumption of antioxidant-rich foods is one way of reversing free-radical damage. Changing habits is the other side of the coin.
Cigarette smoking causes a high level of free-radical damage. Other environmental factors causing such damage include radiation, pollution and exposure to harmful chemicals. Ultraviolet light — either from the sun or tanning salons — also causes free-radical damage. Stress is another culprit.
Removing or reducing these conditions in your life can help antioxidants win the war in our bodies. We must give our immune systems a fighting chance.
There's an even simpler weapon we have to fight free-radical damage, but you need to give it time.
"When you sleep, you restore your body: Your body actually deals with free-radical damage while you're sleeping," says Yance.
What about supplements or pharmaceuticals as a way to turbo-charge your body with antioxidants?
While dietary supplements deliver concentrated doses of vitamins and minerals, proceed with caution. While vitamin C is water-soluble and thus passes easily through the body, vitamin E is fat-soluble and retained in the body with potential to reach toxic levels if consumed in excess, according to WebMD.com.
Yance says we need look no farther than nature for our supply of antioxidants.
"The beauty of nature is this ability that living entities have that is found in all life forms that drugs will never be able to do," he says. "It is to work harmoniously with our bodies."
For more information, see this WebMD page at http://tinyurl.com/y9p5gpf.