All About Antioxidant Supplements: How They Work & When to Use Them

May 28, 2024

Your body faces thousands of threats every single day, from everything from air pollution to a viral infection. Another constant threat comes from chemicals called free radicals. At very high levels, they are capable of damaging your cells. 

Luckily, you aren’t defenseless against free radicals. Your body makes molecules that fight these free radicals, called antioxidants. But sometimes, your body needs a little help. This is where antioxidants come into play, but there are some things you need to consider.

Here’s everything you need to know about free radicals, oxidative stress, and antioxidants. Plus, when you should and shouldn’t take antioxidant supplements.

What Are Free Radicals?

To understand what antioxidants do, you have to start with a little molecule called a free radical. These molecules are considered unstable because they have lost an electron. Electrons rotate around a molecule. And when a molecule loses an electron, it goes on the hunt for a new one. At that point, the molecule becomes a free radical. Free radicals may steal an electron from another cell and damage the cell’s DNA (1).

Your body naturally produces free radicals when your cells convert energy from the foods you eat or when you're burning energy through exercise. Several other factors can promote excessive free radical formation, including (2, 3, 4):

  • Air pollution
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Alcohol intake
  • High blood sugar 
  • High intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids
  • Radiation (including excessive sunbathing)
  • Bacterial, fungal, or viral infections
  • Antioxidant deficiency (more on this later)

What Is Oxidative Stress?

Oxidation is a normal and necessary process in your body. Oxidative stress, on the other hand, occurs when there’s an imbalance between free radical activity and antioxidant activity. When functioning correctly, free radicals can help fight off pathogens—pathogens that can lead to infections (5).

But here's the catch: when your body has more free radicals than antioxidants can handle, the free radicals can start damaging fatty tissue, DNA, and proteins.

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Oxidative stress has been linked to an increased risk for chronic diseases that include (6, 7):

Where Antioxidants Come Into Play

Antioxidants are essential for the survival of all living things.

Antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in your body. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by giving up some of their own electrons. In making this sacrifice, they act as a natural "off" switch for the free radicals. This helps break a chain reaction that can affect other molecules in the cell and other cells in the body. 

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of different substances that can act as antioxidants. The most familiar ones are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and other related carotenoids, along with the minerals selenium and manganese. Others include glutathione, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols, phytoestrogens, and many more (1). 

Good sources of antioxidants include:

  • Astaxanthin: krill oil
  • Beta-carotene: pumpkin, mangoes, apricots, carrots, spinach and parsley
  • Carotenoids: apricots, asparagus, broccoli
  • Curcumin: turmeric
  • Lutein: green, leafy vegetables
  • Lycopene: apricots, pink grapefruit and watermelon
  • Manganese: seafood, lean meat, and nuts
  • Selenium: Brazil nuts, fish, shellfish
  • Vitamin C: oranges, kiwis, mangoes, broccoli, spinach, and strawberries
  • Vitamin E: avocados, nuts, and seeds
  • Zinc: seafood, beef, and nuts

Native Note: It’s important to recognize that the term "antioxidant" reflects a chemical property rather than a specific nutritional property.

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So Then, What Are Antioxidant Supplements?

Our bodies make some of the antioxidants we need. Additional antioxidants come from foods such as fruits and vegetables. Some antioxidants, such as vitamins C, E, and curcumin, are also available as dietary supplements. 

Antioxidant supplements often come in a powder, pill, or liquid form. They can be a single nutrient supplement—like a vitamin C supplement—or a multivitamin with other vitamins and minerals.

When Should You Take an Antioxidant Supplement?

These supplements can be useful if you suffer from an antioxidant deficiency (see I told you we’d come back to it). A diet high in unhealthy fats, sugar, and/or refined carbohydrates can lead to antioxidant deficiency and increased oxidative stress (8). A diet that lacks lean meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds can also lead to insufficient antioxidant levels. 

Age also plays a factor in antioxidant deficiencies. As you age, your body naturally produces fewer antioxidants, and their ​​ability to fight off free radicals and oxidative stress weakens (9). Certain antioxidant supplements can help replenish your levels.

Who Shouldn’t Take Antioxidant Supplements?

While antioxidant supplements can be great for those with deficiencies, studies have shown that high-dose antioxidant supplements may be harmful in certain populations.

For example, a 2011 study linked vitamin E supplementation with an increased risk of prostate cancer in healthy men (10).

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Participants who had been taking 400 IUs of vitamin E per day (over 1,800% of the Daily Value) for five and a half years had a 17% higher incidence of prostate cancer after supplementation ended compared with participants who took a placebo. Researchers determined this difference to be statistically significant and not just related to chance.

Similarly, studies have linked beta-carotene supplementation with an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers (11).

Some antioxidant supplements—such as vitamin A—may even increase the risk of birth defects if taken in high doses (12). If you are pregnant, always check with your doctor before you start taking any regular supplements.

Certain antioxidants can also interact with certain medications:

  • Vitamin C supplements could counteract the HDL cholesterol-raising effects of statin drugs (13).
  • Vitamin E supplements could increase the risk of bleeding when taken with anticoagulant or antiplatelet medications like warfarin (14).
  • Vitamin A or beta carotene supplements can increase the risk of vitamin A toxicity if you take oral retinoid medication, such as acitretin for psoriasis or bexarotene for T-cell lymphoma (15).

You should always consult with your doctor or healthcare provider before adding any new supplement into your routine.

Restoring Glutathione: Your Body’s Master Antioxidant

One antioxidant that your body really needs is glutathione.

Glutathione is known as the body's “master antioxidant” and is found in every single cell.

But the thing is your body can’t produce glutathione on its own, and it decreases with age, so you need to replenish it. But how? 

Enter NAC (N-acetylcysteine).

In a 2011 study, participants were able to get their glutathione levels back to a healthy level within just two weeks of NAC supplementation (16)

Native NAC is a unique blend of 1,600 mg of NAC and 1,600 mg of L-Glycine. Both are essential amino acids required for the production of glutathione, making this supplement a potent force in maintaining healthy glutathione levels. 

It also contains 500 mg of L-Taurine, an amino acid known for its antioxidant properties and ability to support cardiovascular health (17).

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The Bottom Line

Antioxidants are powerful molecules that can help combat free radicals and oxidative stress. Most of the antioxidants your body needs can be naturally produced or obtained from a healthy diet full of lean meats, fruits, and veggies.

Antioxidant supplements can be a great addition to your diet if you suffer from an antioxidant deficiency—whether from a poor diet or natural aging. NAC is one antioxidant supplement that can be extremely important as you age since it replenishes your glutathione levels.

Just be mindful to consult with your doctor or healthcare provider before adding any new supplements to your routine.

Kat Kennedy
Article by

Kat Kennedy

Kat Kennedy is the Fitness and Nutrition Editor at NativePath. With a NASM CPT, NCSF CPT, and NCSF Sports Nutrition Certification, she has a passion for giving people the tools they need to feel healthy, strong, and confident.

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    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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