Health Benefits of Antioxidants

smoothie bowl with blueberries and raspberries goji berries

GMVozd / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Antioxidants are known for their anti-inflammatory abilities. They also may protect cells in your body from free radical damage that can occur from exposure to certain chemicals, smoking, pollution, radiation, and as a byproduct of normal metabolism.

Antioxidants are found in many foods and include selenium, vitamin A and related carotenoids, vitamins C and E, plus various phytochemicals such as lycopene, lutein, and quercetin. Keep reading to learn more about the health benefits of antioxidants, which foods are rich with them as well as facts about supplementation.

Health Benefits of Antioxidants

Antioxidants combat free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can damage the body's cells and can lead to cancer. The damage that free radicals cause is called oxidative stress and it occurs from metabolic processes.

For instance, when your body uses oxygen, free radicals are created as a by-product. Free radicals and oxidative stress also come from pollution, cigarette smoke, radiation, drugs, and pesticides.

Several antioxidants can boost other aspects of health such as reducing inflammation, protecting brain health, and enhancing immunity. Because antioxidants can be anti-inflammatories, they are effective for reducing tissue damage, including post-workout inflammation.

The same anti-inflammatory function can provide protective effects for organs such as the heart. For instance, antioxidants can play a role in reducing the risks for atherosclerosis (artery hardening), stabilizing blood pressure, and reducing cholesterol levels.

Other health benefits of antioxidants include a lower risk of eye disease, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and protective effects against cognitive decline. Antioxidants are often considered anti-aging compounds because oxidative stress is an effect of aging.

Antioxidants in Foods

Eating plenty of nutrient-dense foods, including colorful fruits and vegetables, teas, and herbs, may boost health and reduce the effects of free radical damage. Nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A/beta-carotene, selenium, and vitamin E can mitigate the cell damage free radicals cause and limit oxidative stress.

You can find these antioxidants in many different foods, some of which you may already enjoy eating. There are large amounts of antioxidants in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains and smaller amounts of antioxidants in meats, poultry, and fish. Most of the time,processed fast foods, lack antioxidants.

Consuming foods rich in antioxidants may be good for your heart health and may help lower your risk of infections and some forms of cancer. The anti-cancer effects of antioxidants are especially well studied.

For instance, an antioxidant called quercetin, which is found in apples, citrus, fruits, onions, red wine, parsley, and more, effectively kills abnormal cells while keeping healthy cells intact. Quercetin interferes with some phases of the cell life cycle, inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death) in various tumors.

Antioxidant-rich foods can improve heart health, protect the cardiovascular system, reduce inflammation, boost exercise recovery and strength, and improve athletic performance.

Food sources of antioxidants are preferred due to increased absorbability and the other multitude of benefits that come from nutrient rich foods. However, supplements are also available for many antioxidants, which may help boost your levels or fill gaps in your nutrition.

What You Should Know About Supplements

Antioxidants are available as dietary supplements, but research doesn't indicate that these supplements are beneficial. While research supports increasing your intake of dietary sources, the results are not as impressive when the individual antioxidants are extracted and studied alone.

Antioxidant extracts often show remarkable results in laboratory studies (test tubes, lab dishes, and sometimes in animals). But when they're used in human clinical trials, the results for disease and death prevention have been disappointing.

One exception is the study of age-related eye disease. This research suggests that a combination of antioxidants can reduce the risk of developing advanced stages of age-related macular degeneration.

Avoid Large Doses

Some antioxidant supplements may be detrimental to your health when taken in large doses and may interact with certain medications. For instance, large amounts of vitamin A supplements may cause birth defects when taken by pregnant women and may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Taking large doses of vitamin E—such as over 400 International Units per day—has been associated with a possible increase in overall mortality. But, this risk doesn't apply to a typical multivitamin supplement. The amounts of vitamins A and E included in multivitamin tablets are small in comparison.

A Word From Verywell

Antioxidants are potent protective compounds that are found in many foods. They provide health benefits ranging from anti-aging and reducing inflammation to cancer prevention. Consuming a diet high in nutrient-dense foods will help ensure you obtain plenty of antioxidants. This includes colorful fruits, vegetables, seafood, herbs, teas, eggs, and more.

Supplements are an option, but it's vital to be aware of potential drawbacks. Supplement forms of antioxidants sometimes do not live up to claims when studied. They are also not always regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. If you're thinking about taking antioxidant supplements, you should first speak with a healthcare provider.

17 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Martinez-Alfaro M, Alcaraz-Contreras Y, Carabez-Trejo A, Leo-Amador GE. Oxidative stress effects of thinner inhalation. Indian J Occup Environ Med. 2011;15(3):87-92. doi:10.4103/0019-5278.93195

  2. Poles J, Karhu E, McGill M, McDaniel HR, Lewis JE. The effects of twenty-four nutrients and phytonutrients on immune system function and inflammation: A narrative reviewJ Clin Transl Res. 2021;7(3):333-376. Published 2021 May 27. PMID:34239993

  3. Velmurugan B, Rathinasamy B, Lohanathan B, Thiyagarajan V, Weng CF. Neuroprotective role of phytochemicalsMolecules. 2018;23(10):2485. doi:10.3390/molecules23102485

  4. Askari G, Ghiasvand R, Karimian J, et al. Does quercetin and vitamin C improve exercise performance, muscle damage, and body composition in male athletesJ Res Med Sci. 2012;17(4):328-331. PMID:23267392

  5. Aviram M, Rosenblat M. Pomegranate for your cardiovascular healthRambam Maimonides Med J. 2013;4(2):e0013. doi:10.5041/RMMJ.10113

  6. Li X, Holt RR, Keen CL, Morse LS, Yiu G, Hackman RM. Goji berry intake increases macular pigment optical density in healthy adults: A randomized pilot trialNutrients. 2021;13(12):4409. doi:10.3390/nu13124409

  7. Ali SS, Ahsan H, Zia MK, Siddiqui T, Khan FH. Understanding oxidants and antioxidants: Classical team with new players. J Food Biochem. 2020;44(3). doi:10.1111/jfbc.13145

  8. Silva SAME, Michniak-Kohn B, Leonardi GR. An overview about oxidation in clinical practice of skin agingAn Bras Dermatol. 2017;92(3):367-374. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.20175481

  9. Neha K, Haider MR, Pathak A, Yar MS. Medicinal prospects of antioxidants: A reviewEur J Med Chem. 2019;178:687-704. doi:10.1016/j.ejmech.2019.06.010

  10. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Antioxidants.

  11. Aune D, Keum N, Giovannucci E, et al. Dietary intake and blood concentrations of antioxidants and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer, and all-cause mortality: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studiesAm J Clin Nutr. 2018;108(5):1069‐1091. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqy097

  12. Vafadar A, Shabaninejad Z, Movahedpour A, et al. Quercetin and cancer: new insights into its therapeutic effects on ovarian cancer cellsCell Biosci. 2020;10:32. doi:10.1186/s13578-020-00397-0

  13. Ammar A, Turki M, Chtourou H, et al. Pomegranate supplementation accelerates recovery of muscle damage and soreness and inflammatory markers after a weightlifting training sessionPLoS ONE. 2016;11(10):e0160305. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0160305

  14. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Antioxidants: In depth.

  15. Pohl F, Kong thoo lin P. The potential use of plant natural products and plant extracts with antioxidant properties for the prevention/treatment of neurodegenerative diseases: In vitro, in vivo and clinical trials. Molecules. 2018;23(12). doi:10.3390/molecules23123283

  16. Wu J, Cho E, Willett WC, Sastry SM, Schaumberg DA. Intakes of lutein, zeaxanthin, and other carotenoids and age-related macular degeneration during 2 decades of prospective follow-upJAMA Ophthalmol. 2015;133(12):1415. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2015.3590

  17. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Study shows high-dose vitamin E supplements may increase risk of dying.

Additional Reading

By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.