Oxygen. It is invisible, often pleasant, and completely necessary. Something to be enjoyed as we cross a field covered with pristine, untouched snow. Something that we can’t live without. However, what many people may not realize is that oxygen, the primary source of free radicals, can also be very harmful.
Whether these free radicals are introduced or formed within the body through a biological process, they can quickly set up a chain reaction where more free radicals are formed by altering the molecules they target and attach to. If they are left unchecked, they can change the structure of our cell’s building blocks such as fats, protein, and DNA. For example, when a free radical damages a cell’s outer covering, that cell is less able to import nutrients, oxygen, and water, tasks which keep our bodies running smoothly. Free radicals can also cause the cell’s outer layer to rupture and spill its often damaging contents into the body.
Over time, this process can lead to irreversible damage and the formation of diseases within the body. For instance, in the development of cancer, free radicals have been found to damage chromosomes and nucleic acids, thus beginning the abnormal cell growth which leads to cancer.
Free radicals are the reactive compounds found in environmental pollution such as car exhaust, pesticides, cigarette smoke, and fumes from factories and industrial plants.
For runners, snowshoers, and other people who practice their sports outside, this can be extremely dangerous as we breathe harder and faster to take in more oxygen as we exercise. Studies have proven that the formation of free radicals increases after an intensive outside workout.
Before you decide to scrap your outdoor exercise or trade your snowshoes for a treadmill, however, there is good news. Our bodies are able to provide a defense against these free radicals by either neutralizing them using something called natural antioxidants or by fixing damaged inner body structures. Even with these defenses constantly working within our bodies, pollution and other oxidant stresses are so widespread that we need something else to fight all of the damage. That’s where supplemental antioxidants and herbs come into play.
So, what exactly are antioxidants? They are substances that stop the formation of free radicals and are our bodies’ front line defense against the free radicals, which cause cancer and other diseases. They include vitamins A, C, E, selenium, and carotenoids such as beta-carotene. The best place to get your antioxidants is through a healthy diet filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, and mangoes.
Experts recommend that you try to eat at least five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables daily. This might seem like a lot, but if you try to incorporate a serving or two at every meal and for at least one snack, eventually you ought to reach the amount you need. Some suggestions to help you increase your vegetable and fruit intake include adding fresh or dried fruit such as blueberries and strawberries to your cereal and drinking pure orange juice for breakfast, slicing tomatoes and cucumbers for your sandwiches, or making fruit smoothies out of mangoes, bananas, and peaches for a mid-afternoon snack. Many types of fruits and vegetables can be cut into bite size pieces and are easy to throw into a backpack. Carrots, bananas, oranges, apples, and grapes are just a few of the antioxidant rich, easily portable foods. Many sport nutrition bars are not only filled with free radical fighting antioxidants but they also provide a healthy, convenient source of energy. Furthermore, by eating foods rich in minerals such as zinc and manganese, which are found in whole grains, meats, and seafood, a person can strengthen his body’s natural antioxidants as well.
Should you decide to supplement with a vitamin pill, consult your doctor first. Certain studies have indicated that the benefits of supplementing might not be as high as once thought and there are risks to taking too much of certain antioxidants. For example, because Vitamins A and E are fat soluble, meaning they are stored in the body, excess amounts of these vitamins stored in the liver and fatty tissues can create toxicity in your body. Therefore, getting most of your nutrients through your diet rather than in a pill is highly recommended.
Another simple way to either rid your body of environmental poisons from pollution or to help protect it is through the use of herbal supplements. As people become more interested in alternative ways to stay healthy, the pharmaceutical and scientific communities are increasing the amount of research done on the safety and effectiveness of herbs. The results of several studies have shown that there are a few herbs that do help our bodies fight against the damage done by exposure to pollution.
It might surprise many people to learn that alfalfa is more than food for cows and horses. It actually fights cancer as well. In a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers found that it binds cancer-causing agents called carcinogens and speeds their elimination from the body. Don’t pile extra alfalfa sprouts on your salad, however. The leaves are where the healing properties lie. Alfalfa leaf tablets and capsules can be found at several larger drug stores that carry herbal supplements as well as at natural food stores and herb outlets.
Because most of the poisons that invade our body are filtered through the liver and kidneys, it is recommended that herbs – which boost the functions of these organs – be used regularly. Milk thistle contains compounds that protect liver cells by preventing the actions of toxic substances. Burdock root is another herb that also aids the liver in fighting the toxins in our bodies by enhancing the liver’s functions. Both can be purchased at natural food stores and are available in capsule form.
Finally, recent research has indicated that several herbs help the bloodstream flush poisons from the body. Dandelion not only filters these toxins from the blood, but it also aids the liver and kidneys rid the body of them as well. Kelp is another herb found to increase circulation and contains a trace mineral valued for its anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects. A licensed herbalist, naturopathic doctor, and many physicians can guide you in your search for more information on herbs which can help protect your body from the damage caused by pollution and free radicals.
And, as always before taking any vitamin or herbal supplement, it is important to check with your physician to ensure your safety and good health.
Finally, while reports of extremely high pollution levels might cause you to think twice before lacing up your snowshoes and enjoying your sport, remember that the benefits of exercise definitely outweigh the risks from environmental toxins and similar dangers.
“The Healing Herbs” by Michael Castleman, Bantam Books, 1995
“The Herb Book” by John Lust, Bantam Books, 1974
“Prescription for Nutritional Healing,” second edition, by James and Phyllis Balch, Avery Publishing Group, 1997
“The Nutrition Desk Reference” by Robert Garrison, Jr. and Elizabeth Somer,
Keats Publishing, 1995