Do you have a 360 degree approach to your hustle? Let’s check off the obvious stuff first - post workout protein for optimize muscle recovery - check. Ample fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed grains to replenish energy stores and fuel your training - check. What about the free radicals that are produced during exercise and as a result of your body battling modern life?
At the most basic level, free radicals are highly charged, somewhat dangerous that if accumulated in your body cause something called oxidative stress. While oxidative stress occurs as a natural part of training and life, it is universally seen as bad because it is generally out of control. Antioxidants help keep oxidative stress in check.
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are molecules that help protect against the damage caused by free radicals. Imagine free radicals as toddler running around a room screaming, banging into things, and knocking items off tables - just causing total mayhem. Antioxidants are the calm parents that swoop in with a pacifier and a favorite picture book to calm the wild toddler.
Oxidative stress and antioxidants are important in a variety of areas in our life and health. As we begin to explore the importance of antioxidants in recovery, the aperture in which we are viewing recovery through needs to widen beyond just physical stress of exercise but to recovery from physiological and psychological stressors as well.
Antioxidants are one of the more misunderstood groups of compounds in health. People, just as we have been, often refer to antioxidants as one thing ‘antioxidants.’ This is actually a gross oversimplification as there are many different classes of antioxidants and within these classes you will find different benefits. Let’s look at 3 major groups of antioxidants and the role they can play in your health.
Flavonoids are a subset of a larger group of antioxidants called polyphenols. Flavonoids are found widely in our food supply most notably found in coffee, tea, dark chocolate, red wine, and citrus fruits. Coffee is actually one of the top sources of antioxidants in the American diet. The flavonoids found in dark chocolate (not just high cacao dark chocolate bars but unsweetened baking chocolate powder) have incredible effects on human physiology including improving cognitive function, oxygen flow to the brain, and also reducing psychological stress. The later two benefits play a significant role in recovery as insufficient oxygen delivery to our muscles impairs recovery. Psychological stress creates the release of a cascade of hormones that can also impair and attenuate efficient recovery. Flavonoid rich foods play an important role in supporting optimal cognitive function and physical recovery.
Anthocyanins, also technically a kind of flavonoid (which is a kind of polyphenol - but let’s not go down that rabbit hole!), are found in fruits (and vegetables) that have dark blue, red, and purple colors. Blueberries, cherries, red grapes, beets, and cranberries and pomegranates are the most well known fruits for their high anthocyanins content but red onions, purple cabbage, and pistachios contain anthocyanins.
Clinical studies with athletes show that drinking anthocyanin rich tart cherry juice can reduce muscle soreness, reduce muscle damage and improve recovery from exercise. Other, but not all, research shows that 1-2 cups of tart cherry juice per day may help improve sleep. The effects are thought to be due to increases in natural melatonin production and reductions in oxidative stress. Flavonoids, Anthocyanins have a strong antioxidant capacity that can help with muscle recovery. Overall reductions in oxidative stress driven by anthocyanins may also improve the health of your circulatory system (i.e. blood vessels) and sleep.
Carotenoids are antioxidants found in plants that have yellow and orange colors. Pumpkin, carrots, sweet potatoes, mangoes, peaches, and even tomatoes. The most well known carotenoid is beta-carotene which your body can convert to Vitamin A. Some research suggests that supplementing with synthetic forms of carotenoids does not confer the same health benefits as carotenoids naturally found fruits and vegetables (specifically related beta-carotene). Carotenoid antioxidants concentrate in your eyes and brain. In your eyes they help filter out blue light emitted from phones, computers, TVs, etc. Optimal carotenoid intakes have been associated with decreased eye fatigue and strain which is great if you stare at a screen most of the day. Carotenoids have also been shown to fight oxidative stress in the brain, leading improvements in a variety of measures of higher level brain function.
Eating different foods that will provide your body with a variety of different kinds of antioxidants is a key strategy for helping fight against the oxidative stress overload brought on my modern life. The more physical and mental stress we are under, the more we can lean into these plant-based performance enhancers to help us be at our best.