A 'Radical' Overview of Antioxidants & Performance

A 'Radical' Overview of Antioxidants & Performance

BY MUIR EDITOR GEORGIA DANIELSON

 

Oxygen is both essential and powerful. Every cell depends on it, but it also liberates free radicals that wreak havoc on the body and may contribute to fatigue and inflammation from exercise.


Free radicals from pollutants, food choices, and bioprocesses damage cells

From your grade school science class days, you may recall that free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron. Electrons can be positively or negatively charged and want to exist in neutral pairs. 

Free radicals are highly unstable and damage cells by stealing electrons and degrading the cell’s integrity. They enter the body from the environment through smoking, air pollution, food, radiation, and through normal cellular processes inside the body that typically involve oxygen. 


Free radicals are disarmed by antioxidants 

Antioxidants are molecules that readily bind with free radicals. They keep free radicals from trying to bind and degrade your cells. You obtain antioxidants by your body producing some naturally as well as through food – mainly plants, but some animal products contain antioxidants as well. 


Even though our cells are can be damaged by free radicals, our immune system with the support of antioxidants fights free radicals to maintain our cells, tissues, and organs

Your immune system actually generates some level of antioxidants naturally to protect your cells, tissues, and organs from oxidative stress and damage. Since your body creates free radicals naturally, it makes sense that we have a built-in response to bind some of them. 


Oxidative stress is when the damage is done

It’s when there are more free radicals than antioxidants that oxidative stress, leaving a surplus of free radicals to run around your body and cause damage. You increase free radicals in your body by either a) increasing your exposure to environmental sources or b) increasing oxygen.  

 


Exercising increases oxidative stress

When you exercise, you breathe harder and take in 10-15 times more oxygen, which increases oxidative stress inside your body. Oxidative stress manifests itself during exercise as muscle fatigue and inflammation.  After training, the liberated free radicals can affect all functions in your body. 


Some oxidative stress is important for health

Research shows that some degree of oxidative stress is important to build your immune system’s resistance to future OS. Similar to the training effect of muscle building, where some breakdown results in your body rebuilding your muscles stronger. 


Too much oxidative stress does not result in adaptation

Over very long bouts of exercise, cellular damage surpasses the amount that promotes an adaptation by your immune system, like during an ultramarathon.  Similar to ‘overtraining,’ you can negate the healthy benefits of small doses of oxidative stress by over doing it. Your body becomes overrun by free radicals, which contribute to fatigue and inflammation. You won’t make your immune system stronger if you overtrain, you’ll only end up digging yourself into the recovery hole. 


How can you limit oxidative stress?

    1. Avoid as many negative stressors as possible. This includes avoiding smoking, checking air quality and staying in when it’s hazardous, limiting exposure to direct sunlight, and sticking to a whole foods diet.
    2. Help your body produce more antioxidants. Keep your body healthy and your immune system strong by getting enough rest, healthy food, and water.
    3. Supplement your body’s antioxidants. You can get antioxidants by eating lots of fruits, veggies, and spices. You can also take a natural supplement to help boost antioxidants. In general, antioxidants through your diet are superior to taking supplements.

What does oxidative stress have to do with athletic performance? 

As mentioned earlier, oxidative stress contributes to fatigue and inflammation, both of which affects performance. Causing oxidative stress requires a recovery period from fatigue, inflammation, and tissue repair.  As long as the stress is not too high, your body should repair itself stronger and be able to handle more stress, thereby delaying fatigue and inflammation during future efforts.  


Will taking antioxidants during exercise have an effect on oxidative stress, fatigue, and inflammation? 

There are limited studies that investigate the effects of antioxidants taken during exercise in relation to fatigue and inflammation. Mostly, the evidence shows that antioxidants taken through real foods – not supplements – during exercise may be an effective way to reduce oxidative stress during very long bouts of exercise. Theoretically, this could offset fatigue and inflammation, which become important to consider in long endurance efforts.  

There is some support for reducing oxidative stress during very long bouts of exercise by consuming antioxidants, primarily through food rather than supplements. In contrast, there is some support that shows antioxidant consumption during short bouts of exercise may negate important adaptation. So, consider antioxidants for long bouts of exercise. 


Weekend warriors are likely the most at-risk for the harms of oxidative stress

Neglecting to slowly build up your resistance to oxidative stress and then heavily introducing oxidative stress through periodic but intense endurance efforts is a very potent recipe for inflammation and fatigue without the benefits of adaptation.  

Doing a little often is much better for your health than doing a lot periodically. That way, you can allow for adaptations to become more resistant to oxidative stress. 


Antioxidants may be important for recovery

After exercising, consuming antioxidants through food may be a great way to reduce the free radicals associated with fatigue and inflammation, which may help you recover faster.  


What are the differences between antioxidants from food and antioxidants from supplements? 

Typically, nutrients in food are more bioavailable than supplements and are generally easier on the liver and kidneys. Antioxidants come abundantly from plants, although animal foods do contain some as well. Spices are especially laden with antioxidants. It is important to consider the effects of food processing on antioxidants: they quality and quantity can be degraded by processing, so opt for the gentlest processing possible for the maximum amount of antioxidants. If you feel your diet is lacking in wholesome foods, you may want to consider a supplement. 

 


Should you take antioxidant supplements during exercise

No. Exercise and supplements by themselves can present stress to the kidneys. Combining them would likely compound the stress. The best action would likely be to consume real foods rich in antioxidants, like strawberries or oranges, during very strenuous exercise, like an ultramarathon race. 


Can you ingest too many antioxidants?

Not through food, but experts suggest avoiding taking supplements excessively.


Final Thoughts

Short bouts of regular exercise can be extremely beneficial for bolstering the body’s natural mechanisms for controlling free radicals and the harm of oxidative stress. 

In contrast, oxidative stress from long and strenuous exercise can overwhelm your natural defense. This is where foods high in antioxidants may be beneficial for binding free radicals and offsetting oxidative stress, which may reduce inflammation and fatigue. 

If you’re interested in bolstering your body’s antioxidant defenses, start with reducing environmental contributors and supporting whole body health with real foods, rest, and hydration.  

Then, consciously incorporate more antioxidant rich foods like spices, berries, and veggies to increase antioxidants. Generally, experts encourage supplements only when you feel you’re not getting enough antioxidants through food. 

 

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Sources:

Antonioni, Ambra et al. “Redox homeostasis in sport: do athletes really need antioxidant support?.” Research in sports medicine (Print) vol. 27,2 (2019): 147-165. 

Elejalde, Edurne et al. “Grape polyphenols supplementation for exercise-induced oxidative stress.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 18,1 3. 7 Jan. 2021.

Lobo, V et al. “Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health.” Pharmacognosy reviews vol. 4,8 (2010): 118-26. doi:10.4103/0973-7847.70902

Neubauer O, Yfanti C. Antioxidants in Athlete’s Basic Nutrition: Considerations towards a Guideline for the Intake of Vitamin C and Vitamin E. In: Lamprecht M, editor. Antioxidants in Sport Nutrition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2015. Chapter 3. 

Pingitore, Alessandro et al. “Exercise and oxidative stress: potential effects of antioxidant dietary strategies in sports.” Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.) vol. 31,7-8 (2015): 916-22. 

Shadab, Mohammad et al. “Oxidative Stress in Sports Persons after a bout of Intense Exercise: A Cross Sectional Study.” Biomedical Research vol. 25, 3.  2014.

Lobo, V et al. “Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health.” Pharmacognosy reviews vol. 4,8 (2010): 118-26. doi:10.4103/0973-7847.70902

Neubauer O, Yfanti C. Antioxidants in Athlete’s Basic Nutrition: Considerations towards a Guideline for the Intake of Vitamin C and Vitamin E. In: Lamprecht M, editor. Antioxidants in Sport Nutrition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2015. Chapter 3. 

Pingitore, Alessandro et al. “Exercise and oxidative stress: potential effects of antioxidant dietary strategies in sports.” Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.) vol. 31,7-8 (2015): 916-22.