The A Team
by Gregory Meade
October 11, 2004
Want the A Team playing to improve
your health? When you accumulate enough antioxidants to help
you attack the molecular marauders out to mar your
well-being, you improve your chances of avoiding illness.
Nowadays you hear plenty of talk about the benefits of
antioxidant nutrients. Antioxidants are the ammunition the
body uses to fight off internal damage. They offer the body
the means to fight against disease but, at the same time,
your body must be in the position to use them optimally.
That means getting enough sleep, consistently exercising and
avoiding overly processed foods. Those lifestyle habits
allow your body to garner its resources and effectively
implement antioxidants in its quest for well-being.
Your body has a love-hate relationship with oxidation: Can't
live without it, often has trouble living with it. For
instance, the production of energy in your cells requires
oxidation. But the byproducts of that process, problematic
molecules called free radicals, have to be chemically
changed or eliminated to avoid the damage that results when
they interact with other parts of the cell.
Left unchecked, these molecular troublemakers can wreak
havoc, oxidizing and punching holes in cell membranes and
damaging other structures they contact. Antioxidant
nutrients are used to defend against oxidation, quell these
harmful destroyers and limit the potential harm they can
For a quick glimpse of one of your basic antioxidant
defenses, look in the mirror. The color in your eyes
represents antioxidant protection against oxidative injury
from the ultraviolet rays in sunlight. Sunlight's energy
sets loose free radicals every time it enters the lenses in
your eyes. Pigments absorb this radiation and, in most
cases, render it harmless.
As part of your vision's defenses, two of the antioxidant
pigments in your food, lutein and zeaxanthin, are deposited
by your body in certain areas of your eyes-in a section
called the macula as well as the lens (BJ Opthalmol 1998;
Lutein and zeaxanthin are classified as carotenoids,
chemical relatives of beta carotene, the antioxidant pigment
that makes carrots orange, and lycopene, the anticancer red
coloring found in tomatoes. These fat-soluble nutrients are
also present in algae. In both your eyes and plants, these
nutrients absorb the destructive ultraviolet rays that give
birth to free radicals.
Studies show that consuming large amounts of these pigments
lowers your risk of a common form of blindness called
age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) and drops your
chances of age-related cataracts. (More than 30 million
people worldwide suffer from ARMD, and cataracts is the
leading cause of blindness across the globe.)
When the sun's rays enter the eye, lutein and zeaxanthin
absorb and filter out dangerous radiation before it can
injure the macula. The macula is the central part of the
retina that allows us to see very fine detail. Otherwise,
over time, as the macula deteriorates, our vision worsens.
In addition, some researchers believe these nutrients help
lower your chances of cancer.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in spinach, Brussels
sprouts, corn, collard greens, green beans, egg yolks,
broccoli, cabbage, kale, lettuce, kiwi and honeydew melons.
The petals of yellow flowers like marigolds and nettles are
also rich in these antioxidant nutrients.
You can also increase your chances of better sight as you
age by consuming sulphoraphane, an antioxidant found in
broccoli. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found
that sulphoraphane takes part in the body's efforts to
shield eye cells from free radicals generated by ultraviolet
light (Proc Natl Acad Sci 2004; 101(28):10446-51).
The researchers who performed this study believe that unlike
the antioxidant nutrients vitamin C and natural vitamin E,
sulphoraphane acts as an "indirect" antioxidant. That means
that while those two vitamins are used by the body to
directly defuse the harmful oxidative force of free radicals
(and then must be replaced or regenerated in the cells),
sulphoraphane acts indirectly, boosting the body's immunity
defenses. Because of that indirect action, researchers point
out, sulphoraphane lasts longer in the body and may produce
a more profound, long-term antioxidant effect.
In other laboratory tests, researchers have discovered that
sulphoraphane can kill Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium
recognized 20 years ago as the cause of debilitating stomach
ulcers and often-fatal stomach cancers (Proc Natl Acad of
This research shows that sulphoraphane is even effective
against antibiotic-resistant Helicobacter. Adding to its
benefits, sulphoraphane can help kill bacteria both inside
and outside stomach cells; when this bacteria hides inside
of cells it is particularly difficult to fight.
" We've known for some time that sulforaphane had modest
antibiotic activity," says Jed Fahey, a plant physiologist
at Hopkins. "However, its potency against Helicobacter, even
those strains resistant to conventional antibiotics, was a
Looking for Mr. Good Diet
For the biggest bang for your antioxidant buck, combine
antioxidants with good lifestyle habits. A laboratory study
of the heart-healthy effects of taking supplements of the
antioxidant vitamins C and natural E along with L-arginine
(an amino acid) found that exercise magnifies benefits
(Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 5/24/04,
online). The scientists who performed this study recommend
exercise along with antioxidants to boost your nutritional
The box score shows that when playing with the A Team you've
got the best chance of hitting an antioxidant home run.