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Do antioxidants really improve immune health?

When it comes to the immune boosting credentials of antioxidants, fact isn’t always easy to distinguish from fiction. 

Food companies selling everything from organic blueberries to rainforest dark chocolate to smoothie blends bombard us with wild claims about the benefits of an antioxidant-rich diet.

At the same time, newspaper headlines tout the latest ‘research,’ from antioxidants warding off dementia—to preventing heart disease, cancer, or even death. 

It’s a huge volume of information, much of which also sounds too good to be true.

So, what should you believe about the link between antioxidants and immunity? 

According to the Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health, the concept of antioxidants first came to public attention back in the 1990s when researchers began to understand the impact of free radicals on the body. 

Free radicals are chemicals generated in a wide range of circumstances: such as when we convert food to energy, when we exercise, or when we are exposed to too much sun. It’s thought that these chemicals can damage the structure of cells by ‘stealing’ electrons, with all sorts of negative effects, including a type of cell damage known as oxidative stress. 

There is accumulating scientific evidence that this oxidative stress may actually be the root cause of chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegeneration, and even ageing. 

Antioxidants work by helping prevent damage to cell structure in the first place. Much like water douses fire, it’s thought that antioxidant compounds neuter the effects of free radicals on our cells by providing electrons instead.  

This link is why, decades after antioxidants first entered public consciousness, food companies routinely make the leap between antioxidant-rich foods and the prevention of serious disease.  

Unfortunately, science is rarely that straightforward.

Though we do know that antioxidants have impact on the damage done by free radicals and thereby the increased risk of disease, clinical studies looking to understand exactly how this works, which sources are best, or which quantities are required have led to conflicting results. 

As a 2018 paper in the journal Antioxidants summed it up:

“[There is a] lack of clinical evidence and specific molecular markers [to be] able to measure the impact of dietary antioxidants, not only on oxidative stress status, but on health."

So, should you even bother including antioxidant-rich foods in your diet? 

Yes, absolutely.

Why? Because there’s absolutely no reason not to.

Four Reasons to Eat Antioxidants

First, we know that these foods tend to be healthier overall. They’re packed full of vitamins and minerals, which work as both antioxidants and as enhancements that bolster organs and bodily functions more broadly.

The important thing is not to prioritize them to the exclusion of other nutrients. 

Second, stick to those antioxidants with the best research behind them.

This includes Vitamin C, E, beta-carotene, selenium, and manganese (which can be found in foods like citrus fruits, carrots, Brazil nuts, and whole grains). Though slightly lesser known, flavan-3-ol is also one of the most studied group of plant-based antioxidants and can be found in a wide spectrum of foods such as grapes, cranberries, blueberries, and okra. 

Third, stick to dietary sources of antioxidants rather than shelling out on supplements.

Though the science isn’t yet crystal clear on how different antioxidant-rich foods compare to one another, there is research to show that they’re more effective than concentrated vitamin supplements. This could be because foods rich in antioxidants have nutrients, such as flavonoids and lycopenes, which are not necessarily included in standard oral supplements. 

Finally, take all those wild claims with a pinch of salt.

Include antioxidant-rich foods as part of a balanced, well-rounded diet and you’ll have given your immune system the best chance you can.

Megan Tatum
Megan Tatum is a freelance journalist covering business, tech, and health. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Women's Health UK, Wired, and The Times.