Antioxidants In Ayurveda Treatment, Benefits

By Dr Raghuram Y.S. MD (Ay) & Dr Manasa, B.A.M.S
Antioxidants are the substances capable of preventing or slowing down the damage occurring to body cells, mainly those caused by free radicals. Free radicals are those unstable molecules that are produced by our body as a reaction to the environment and other pressures. Since they counteract and antagonize the free radicals and protect our body from them, the antioxidants are called ‘free radical scavengers’.
Read – Importance Of Diet (Pathya) For Specific Diseases

Types of antioxidants

Endogenous antioxidants – produced by our body
Exogenous antioxidants – come from outside the body
Natural antioxidants – some plant based foods which are rich in antioxidants

Role of free radicals

When the body processes food and reacts to the external environment, the body cells produce certain waste substances. These waste substances formed inside the body are called free radicals. The body needs to process and remove these free radicals from time to time. If the body fails in expelling these free radicals from the body, they create oxidative stress in the body. This would eventually harm the cells and hamper the functions of the body. Free radicals are also called as ROS i.e. Reactive Oxygen Species.

Oxidative stress is said to cause wide array of disorders, such as –
Heart diseases
Respiratory diseases
Arthritis
Stroke
Cancer
Immune deficiency
Parkinson’s Disease
Emphysema
Inflammatory disorders
Ischemic disorders
Atherosclerosis
Loss of vision

Antioxidants help in neutralizing free radicals and boosting the overall health of the person.
Read – Immunity In Ayurveda: Concept, Diet, Herbs, Medicines, Exercise

Factors producing free radicals can be of two types –

Internal factors – inflammation
External factors – pollutants, exposure to UV rays, smoking cigarette etc

Benefits of antioxidants

Protects the cells from the damage caused by free radicals i.e. from oxidative stress

Causes of oxidative stress

Excessive exercise
Tissue trauma – caused by injury or inflammation or both
Mitochondrial activity
Ischemia
Foods – refined foods, processed foods, trans-fats, some dyes and additives, artificial sweeteners
Smoking
Environmental pollution
Radiation and its effect
Exposure to chemicals, pesticides, drugs
Exposure to chemotherapy
Exposure to industrial solvents
Ozone
These factors lead to cell damage.

Effects of cell damage
Excessive release of free iron ions or copper ions
Activation of phagocytes (white blood cells which fights infection)
Increase in enzymes which tend to create free radicals
Disruption of electron transport chains

All these events result in oxidative stress.

Tendency for manifestation of disorders due to oxidative stress would get reduced when antioxidants are taken.
Read – Rasayana Therapy (Anti Ageing, Rejuvenation) Benefits, Meaning, Medicines

Studies show that antioxidants act as –
Scavengers of radical
Hydrogen and electron donor
Peroxide decomposer
Singlet oxygen quencher
Enzyme inhibitor
Synergist
Metal-chelating agents
Might reduce vision loss in older people.

Examples of antioxidants

Antioxidants are not a single thing, it is in fact many substances which fulfill benefits of antioxidants.

Examples of exogenous antioxidants
Vitamins A, C and E
Beta-carotene
Selenium
Manganese
Lutein etc

Antioxidants and phytonutrients in plant based foods –
Flavonoids
Catechins
Polyphenols
Phytoestrogens etc
Read – Vitamins In Ayurveda – Sources, Functions, Deficiency Disorders

Need to take a varied diet?

From the perspective of antioxidants one should take a varied diet having antioxidants. Different food substances have different antioxidants which serve different function and benefits.

Food sources of antioxidants

Super-foods – Plant based foods, mainly fruits and vegetables are the best sources of antioxidants. Super-foods or functional foods are those which are particularly rich in antioxidants.

The following shall be included in the diet to obtain needed antioxidants –

AntioxidantFood sources
Vitamin AEggs Dairy products Liver
Vitamin CFruits and vegetables- Berries, oranges, bell peppers
Vitamin ENuts and seeds Green, leafy vegetables, Sunflower oils, Vegetable oils
Beta CaroteneFruits and vegetables which are brightly colored
Examples – carrots, peas, spinach, mangoes
SeleniumRice, Corn, Wheat, Whole grains, Nuts, Cheese, Eggs, Legumes
LuteinGreen leafy vegetables, Oranges, Papaya, Corn
LycopeneWatermelon, Tomatoes, Pink and red fruits and vegetables
Other foodsEggplants, Pomegranates, Red grapes, Legumes – black beans, kidney beans Dark chocolates, Green and black teas, Goji berries, Blueberries, Apples Broccoli, Spinach, Lentils

Note – Foods which have rich and vibrant colors contain most antioxidants.

Effects of cooking on antioxidants

Cooking and heating certain foods having antioxidants can either increase or decrease their levels in the food.

Example –
Better usage of antioxidants after heating – When heated, the antioxidant in the tomatoes i.e. lycopene gets transformed in such a way that it gets easier for our body to process and use it.

Loss of antioxidants due to heating process – Much of the antioxidant activity is lost due to the cooking process in cauliflower and peas.

Therefore it is very important to eat a variety of foods rich in antioxidants immaterial of them being cooked or raw.
Read – Bad Food Combinations And Solution As Per Ayurveda

Diet tips

Below mentioned help in increasing antioxidant levels in body –
1. Green tea – 1 or 2 cups of Green tea is rich in antioxidants. When 1-2 cups of green tea are consumed regularly it provides good health benefits.
2. Make sure of including fruits, vegetable or both in each meal that you consume each day.
3. Colorful plate – the more colorful meal plate is, the more balanced food and the more variety it has and more the antioxidants you consume per serving. Therefore make plate colorful by including foods of many colors including beets, berries and kale.

Spicy antioxidants – Below mentioned spices can also enrich the antioxidant content –
Ginger
Cumin
Turmeric
Clove
Cinnamon etc

Include nuts, seeds, dried fruits and sunflower seeds in your diet or snacks but make sure that they are not sugared or salted.

Recommended daily allowance (RDA) for antioxidants – There is no standard or set RDA for antioxidants. But for good health to be maintained plant based products are advised to be taken in high proportions so as to supply a good quantity of antioxidants to the body.
Read – High Potassium, Kidney Disease and Leaching of Vegetables

Associated risk

Many studies recommend consumption of a lot of fruits and vegetables for tapping a good quantity of antioxidants and to maintain good health. On the other hand it is not clear if fruits and vegetables really supply antioxidants and the healthy status is due to the antioxidants supplied by them. Therefore one needs to be careful and take caution while administering supplements.

According to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) taking high doses of antioxidant supplements might be harmful for one’s health.

Example –
High beta carotene intake is linked to increased risk of lung cancers in smokers
Vitamin E in high doses is linked to prostate cancer risk

It is found that some antioxidant supplements might also interfere and interact with some medications.

Researches have not proved the effect of any antioxidant taken in the form of supplement or through food in providing protection against diseases.
Read – Ayurveda Vitamin D Foods: Natural Sources Of Vitamin D

Importance of Antioxidants in Rasayana Therapy

Rasayana is anything which helps in enriching the best essence of all the tissues in the body. Tissues are the first line of defense in body. Vitiation of body tissues by vitiated doshas is the mandatory pathological step in the manifestation of systemic diseases.

Vitiated doshas are thus the endogenous cell damaging components. But these doshas make up our constitution and take care of all the bodily functions when they are in a state of balance. External factors including the pollutants, the foods we consume and the conditions which influence us will tend to damage the cells of the body by vitiating the doshas. Though the doshas get vitiated in this condition too, the vitiation happens only when they are disturbed and influenced by external factors. The external factors causal for cell damage are thus the exogenous factors.

By definition, antioxidants are substances which have the capacity to prevent or slow down the cell damage in our body. They mainly prevent the damages caused by free radicals. Rasayanas too have similar line of action.
Read – Similarities between Rasayana and Pathya (Healthy Diet)

Comparison between Antioxidants and Rasayanas

1. Action of Antioxidants

Body is exposed to foods and external environment → body processes foods and reacts to external environment → cells produce free radicals (wastes) → cause oxidative stress (when free radicals are not removed properly) → cell and functional damage → many diseases ← ANTIOXIDANTS prevent this sequence of pathology inside the body → neutralize free radicals → boost overall health

2. Action of Rasayanas

Body is exposed to Nidanas – incompatible and unwholesome foods, activities and unfavorable external environment → body cannot process things which are not compatible with its cells, first at the gut level and next at the tissue level → gut and subsequently the tissues produce wastes i.e. ama, amavisha, mala → produce severe stress on the tissues when they are not removed from time to time → cellular and functional damage → many diseases ← Rasayanas (effective when done after body cleansing) prevent this sequence of pathology inside the body → neutralize effects of ama and amavisha → rejuvenate and fortify the cells → boost overall health

In this context we can see that both antioxidants and Rasayanas have similar roles to play as far as their therapeutic action is concerned.

Both have predominantly preventive roles when used as per prescription. Still we cannot equate antioxidants and rasayanas since Rasayanas are broad spectrum medicines (includes non medicinal measures too). We can therefore tell that antioxidants may be considered to have Rasayana like role and action and not that Rasayanas have antioxidant like role and action.
Read – Achara Rasayana – Behavioral Therapy For Calm Mind And Long Life

So this proves that there is similarity between Rasayana herbs explained in Ayurveda and the antioxidants explained in modern medicine. The below mentioned herbs are found to have antioxidant properties and can be readily used to manage the diseases which are mediated by free radicals. They are –
Rubia cordifolia
Bacopa monnieri
Nardostachys jatamansi
Moringa oleifera
Strychnous nuxvomica
Semecarpus anacardium etc

Research

Read – Free Radicals in Ayurveda by Yamini B. Tripathi

Study – Evaluation of antioxidant potential of Rasayana Drugs in healthy human volunteers – This study concluded that Ashwagandha i.e. Withania somnifera and Guduchi i.e. Tinospora cordifolia may be helpful in preventing oxidative stress and premature aging. Oxidative stress may contribute to diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis and neuro-degeneration in motor neuron diseases. These herbs may prove beneficial in combating these problems.

Another study conducted to evaluate antioxidant potential of Amalakayas Rasayana – a polyherbal Ayurveda formulation concluded that methanol extract of this compound which contained large amounts of phenol compounds exhibits high antioxidant and free radical scavenging activities and also has reducing power.

Study – A study showed that the below mentioned plants contain antioxidant principles which explains and justifies their use in traditional medicine in the past and present practice. They are

Amla
Curcula longa
Mango
Momordica charantia
Sandalwood
Swertia chirata
Withania somnifera

Study – Brahma Rasayana enhances in vivo antioxidant status in cold-stressed chickens.

Read about – hepatoprotective and antioxidant effects of Argyreia speciosa in rats

Conclusive thoughts

There are many herbs whose antioxidant properties have been studied. These herbs have been in use as a part of clinical practice in Ayurveda since ancient times. Antioxidants and their implications in many diseases is a current trend in modern medicine also. Modern medicine too has shortlisted many food inclusions which can act as antioxidants.

1.  Rasayanas explained in Ayurveda, be it single herbs, food inclusions or formulations may be explored to be used in the form of antioxidants in free-radical mediated diseases. Ayurveda provides the biggest platform to do so since there are many thousands of Rasayana formulations explained in various Ayurveda treatises. Antioxidant property is one among the many properties of Rasayana therapy. Rasayana therapy is not equal to antioxidant usage but is a broad spectrum treatment approach and a major branch of eight fold branches of Ayurveda.

2.  The antioxidants on the other hand which are shortlisted and enlisted by the modern medicine shall also be used as Rasayanas since their role and properties are similar. This would blend the ancient and modern approaches in an effective way to effectively combat free-radical induced disorders.

Click to Consult Dr Raghuram Y.S. MD (Ayu)

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