The Essential Guide To Antioxidants: Natural Sources for Better Health
It’s no secret that antioxidants are good for you, but for a lot of people, the conversion stops there. Terms like oxidative stress, free radicals, and immune boosters show up in mainstream culture and health food stores with little context, leading many to wonder if it’s all just another buzzy health trend.
But the truth remains: antioxidants are the body’s defense mechanism against pesky free radical damage.
Ahead, a simplified explanation of how antioxidants work and the health problems linked to high levels of free radicals, followed by a list of natural antioxidant sources and supplements. This antioxidants guide is a refresher in all things plant-based (and possibly the motivation you need to practice mindfulness around mealtime).
Important Terms to Know
Antioxidants and free radicals are important molecules in clinical research because an imbalance may lead to oxidative stress, which has been linked to heart disease, infection, cancer, and certain mental health disorders , such as anxiety and depression. Here’s a quick review of each term to catch you up to speed:
- Antioxidants: Naturally occurring molecules in the body, such as glutathione (produced by the liver and responsible for immune regulation), protect you from inflammation. Other forms of antioxidants come from food items like blueberries, dark chocolate, and green tea. The primary function of antioxidants is to mediate free radical damage and oxidative stress.
- Free radicals: These unstable molecules form in response to environmental, lifestyle, and dietary factors. Smoking, pollution, excessive alcohol use, and taking too many supplements (vitamin E and beta-carotene) may cause cellular damage. Antioxidants help to balance free radicals through an electron transfer.
Oxidative stress: Without a helpful antioxidant electron to stabilize free radicals, the resulting cellular damage leads to oxidative stress. The risk of this antioxidant and free radical imbalance has been linked to chronic disease , inflammation, and increased aging.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that scientists still do not fully understand the role of free radicals in the body. Taking antioxidants is not a guarantee against free radical damage. Mixed research findings  also suggest that overdosing on antioxidants may increase the risk of cancer and stroke. Finally, some risk factors, such as pollution, chemical and ultraviolet exposure (this is a friendly reminder to wear sunscreen), are seemingly impossible to avoid in modern society.
With antioxidants, moderation is key. Remember to consume antioxidant-rich foods alongside exercise, rather than relying on supplements alone.
The Top 5 Best Sources of Antioxidants
Some of the best antioxidants can be found in the produce aisle, dry section, or pharmacy of your local grocery store.
- Vegetable/Legume: Spinach, broccoli, beets, pinto beans, kale, sweet potatoes, lentils, chickpeas, and carrots contain antioxidant-promoting nutrients (vitamin C and carotenoids) that may reduce inflammation-induced oxidative damage .
- Fruit: Anthocyanins are phyto (plant) chemicals responsible for the red, purple, and blue pigments in fruits like blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries. Animal and human studies show that anthocyanins have antioxidative properties .
- Nut: Pecans, brazil nuts, cashews, walnuts, and peanuts are good sources of unsaturated fat and antioxidants due to polyphenols, organic compounds that appear in plant-based foods like nuts .
- Seed: This overlooked food group is surprisingly rich in zinc, omega-3s, polyphenols, and vitamin E, nutrients with known antioxidant benefits. Chia seeds, in particular, are one of the most-researched types . These tiny black seeds offer benefits for heart health (good cholesterol), inflammation, and immune function. Other options include sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds.
- Vitamins/minerals: Popular ones include vitamin E, C, and beta-carotene.
You can also eat dark chocolate to round out your antioxidant-themed lunch/dinner, as it contains flavonoids and phenolic antioxidant compounds . Look for bars with cocoa in the 70% range and up to reap the potential heart and brain benefits.
Those who are interested in traditional herbal medicine can supplement with adaptogenic herbs. In Indian Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese medicine, practitioners take a holistic approach to disease prevention and management. Plant substances classified as adaptogens are praised for their ability to help with stress resistance, brain health, and oxidative damage .
Some of the more popular adaptogens include Astralagus, Eleuthero, Reishi, and Amala.
One of the most well-known adaptogens with antioxidative properties is called Indian gooseberry or Amla. Native to India, Amla fruit, leaves, and seeds offer potential benefits for heart and immune health, along with anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties .
With so many herbs to choose from, supplements are a convenient way to take advantage of the synergistic effects of multiple adaptogens. Of course, you can always go the DIY route and put together your own blends, but for those looking for a one-stop option, adaptogenic powder with antioxidant-fortified herbs, here at Sovereignty, may help you protect yourself from free radical damage.
A Word of Caution From Nisha Khanna - Medical Advisor
When you look at what most people consume -- their diet, drinks, and activities -- the redox balance (the balance of oxidation and reduction) is highly skewed towards oxidation. Most people barely get 1-2 serving of fruits and vegetables per day, multitask their lives, don’t sleep enough or well enough, and then decompress with alcohol, which leads to further oxidation and antioxidant depletion.
If you can’t change or aren’t ready to change these aspects of daily living, and yet you want to maintain vitality, youth, and health, you do need to rely on the power of herbs and supplements to support this level of daily damage. Even if you lived a perfect life, we live in an imperfect world with environmental pollutants and stressors. Moreover, the process of simply eating and digesting food is the single highest contributor to oxidation in the body. Therefore, the body needs all the support it can get from the choices you make to balance this unavoidable daily oxidation.
The main difference between a young person and an old person or a healthy person and diseased person, is their ability to balance oxidation. When we are young, we naturally produce more antioxidants. So we can stay up all night, eat junk food, feel fine, and bounce back quickly. With time, the load on detox organs begins to accumulate, they work less efficiently, and antioxidants levels decrease.
Therefore, as we age, unless we are actively doing something to reverse this trajectory of decline, we will become less vital, disease will manifest, and you will wonder what happened to the person you wanted to be.
Purpose and Dream
Many of us turn to a cup of coffee in the morning for a shot of caffeinated motivation, but the short-term side effects can be regrettably uncomfortable—the jitters, fatigue, and feeling like you’re crashing are all symptoms of caffeine sensitivity.
Our Purpose Energy Powder is made with coffee fruit, a part of the coffee plant that has antioxidative properties and significantly less caffeine. This daytime supplement is a great coffee alternative that promotes long-lasting energy and focus.
You also get a dose of Amla, hemp, and S7® (green tea, tart cherry, blueberry, kale, broccoli, and turmeric)—plant-based ingredients to keep you stress-free and ahead of oxidative damage.
Those who prefer nighttime supplements can sleep their stress away with Dream. This sister formula offers the same adaptogenic benefits of Purpose, but with the addition of sleep-inducing holy basil and lemon balm. Dream Sleep Powder is a natural way to fall asleep and gradually train your central nervous system to resist stress.
Antioxidants from plant-based sources may protect you against free radicals and oxidative stress. If you’re thinking about taking antioxidant supplements, remember to first talk to your healthcare provider to discuss possible interactions with any of your prescribed medications. It’s always a good idea to keep them in the loop as your experiment with herbal medicine.
In the end, remember to dose wisely, do your research, and be patient. Plant medicine takes time to take effect, and consistency is key to getting the results you seek.