Antioxidants play an important role in physical and mental health. Research shows maintaining a diet with antioxidant-rich foods lowers risk of oxidative stress, which can lead to inflammatory diseases and neurological disorders.

Superfoods such as blueberries and dark, leafy greens help the body maintain a proper balance of antioxidants.

Let’s take a look at antioxidants, where to find them, and the mental and physical health benefits they provide.

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What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants can assist fighting cell damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules within the body that can damage cells, and they are linked to several diseases and aging, per Medical News Today.

Our bodies use antioxidants, which are found naturally in foods, to fight off harm caused by free radicals. Antioxidants are often found in whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, per Healthline. Vitamins, including vitamin C and vitamin E, also provide antioxidants.

“We also extract free-radical fighters from food. These defenders are labeled ‘antioxidants.’ They work by generously giving electrons to free radicals without turning into electron-scavenging substances themselves. They are also involved in mechanisms that repair DNA and maintain the health of cells,” writes Harvard Health.

Studies have shown that individuals with low consumption of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.

What is oxidative stress?

Oxidative stress occurs when the body has an imbalance of antioxidants and free radicals, research shows.

Free radicals play important roles in our bodies, such as assisting immune cells in fighting infection, per Healthline. The body must maintain a balance of free radicals and antioxidants — when free radicals significantly outnumber antioxidants, the body suffers from oxidative stress.

There are several environmental, lifestyle and stress factors which lead to oxidative stress. Some of these include:

  • Air pollution.
  • Alcohol intake.
  • Smoking.
  • Excessive exercise.
  • Inflammation.
  • Radiation.
  • Pesticides.
  • Tissue trauma.
  • High blood sugar levels.
  • Industrial solvents
  • Consuming certain foods, such as refined and processed foods.
  • Ozone.
  • Antioxidant deficiency.

A study from 2010 found that oxidative stress may lead to “anthersclerosis, inflammatory condition, certain cancers, and the process of aging.” The study also suggests that oxidative stress contributes to inflammatory diseases and neurological disorders.

“Free radicals damage contributes to the etiology of many chronic health problems such as cardiovascular and inflammatory disease, cataract, and cancer. Antioxidants prevent free radical induced tissue damage by preventing the formation of radicals, scavenging them, or by promoting their decomposition,” the study writes.

Relying on natural sources of antioxidants is the healthiest way to avoid oxidative stress. Foods such as fruits and vegetables are known for being packed with natural antioxidants.

Foods rich in antioxidants

Antioxidants boast several physical and mental health benefits. They neutralize cell-damaging free radicals, ease oxidative stress and boost overall health, per Medical News Today.

Blueberries, for example, are packed with antioxidants and have proven mental heath benefits.

2020 study found that over the course of a month, adolescents who consumed wild blueberry supplements self-reported lower symptoms of depression.

Several studies (including one in 2020 and one in 2021) have found that daily consumption of vegetables and fruits — like blueberries — is linked to improved mental well-being. A diet balanced with fruits, berries and vegetables helps prevent symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The antioxidants found in dark chocolate may increase blood flow to your skin and help protect it from sun damage, according to a 2021 study

Here are some other fruits, vegetables and whole foods rich in antioxidants (per Harvard Health):

  • Berries.
  • Citrus fruit.
  • Dark, leafy greens.
  • Broccoli.
  • Cauliflower.
  • Almonds.
  • Tomatoes.
  • Fish.
  • Bell peppers.
  • Dark chocolate.