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How to Eat to Make the Most of Your Antioxidants

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How to Eat to Make the Most of Your Antioxidants


Remember playing “hot-potato” as a kid?  Whether it was just a fast-paced game of catch or it was literally a steaming tuber being tossed around, speed and urgency are the name of the game.

The way your body deals with free radicals - the little, unstable molecules that can lead to inflammation if left unchecked - has to be fast too. Pick up that hot ember, quickly make a decision on who to pass it to, and then wait for when another one comes around to you. Even though your antioxidant system coordinates this at the tiniest scale, how well it works has big implications for your energy levels, healthy aging, and joint and heart health.

Your standard vitamins A, C, and E take care of the quick response.  Healthy glutathione levels provide the power to deal with the hot potato game of oxidative damage (check out our other posts if you want to learn more about glutathione - a hint: it might be your most important antioxidant, but you can’t supplement to get more). But what happens to your antioxidants in the process? 

Damaged glutathione and other antioxidants have to be recycled. In a sense, the troops have to be refreshed before they go back to keeping the peace with inflammation. If we were to play a full scale game of hot potato, with the potato being a free radical, there would be three classes of defenses to keep in mind: security, medics, and waste management.

Security and Communications: Selenium

Selenium is a part of selenocysteine. It’s a special amino acid that works in a protein to receive damaged glutathione and signal the rest of the peacekeepers to mount a defense. Higher selenium levels are linked to increased glutathione processing power, but that doesn’t mean everyone should just go and start supplementing with selenium!  Go too much over the recommended 400 micrograms per day and you’ll have some serious repercussions! Keep reading for the information you need to keep your selenium optimized.

Medical team: Copper, Zinc, and Manganese

These minerals have many other important roles in the body. In combination with glucosamine and chondroitin, supplementing with manganese is linked better joint health in older adults with osteoarthritis. High quality research suggests zinc might be helpful to take at the start of a cold to support the immune system’s activity. Low copper levels might be associated with heart disease and supplementing can increase some positive measures of heart health.

In the antioxidant system, copper, zinc, and manganese work to get glutathione back out on the front lines.  Copper supplementation has been shown to increase glutathione recycling systemsZinc raises the same enzyme that helps keep glutathione working well.  Even though it might not be enough to lower oxidative stress in the average person, it seems to work in people with increased risk for oxidative damage, like those with kidney disease, and in high-level athletes.

Disposal: Manganese and Iron

If the other minerals are the team of medics that patch up glutathione, then iron and manganese neutralize the damaging byproducts and leftovers.  Iron is a little tricky: just like selenium, you can get too much of a good thing, but too little will leave you feeling low-energy and easily fatigued. Women and children are at highest risk for iron deficiency. Too much iron can itself lead to increased oxidation and fatigue. The good news is that the National Institutes of Health recognize that iron overload from food doesn’t seem to be a big problem for most people - so outside of supplementing, eating iron-rich foods will help keep your energy up and your stress down. We’ll go more into how to eat to make sure you have the right iron levels in another post, so stay tuned!

How do I get enough selenium without getting too much?

The last time selenium made headlines was in 2008, when 201 people suffered from selenium poisoning in a poorly regulated supplement. You won’t find this kind of poor oversight in Resync products: our supplements go through rigorous testing to carry the highest safety certifications

The only other likely way you’ll get too much selenium is if you eat too many Brazil nuts. How many?  Well, it depends. Selenium in plants comes from the soil, and soil levels vary depending on where you live, but it seems that levels in animal products are more consistent.

So, if you think you have a clean diet and you’re getting lots of local whole foods, you really don’t know how much selenium you’re getting in your diet.  If you’re in the United States your best bet is to check out this map from the U.S. Geological Survey. If you’re only eating local foods in an area with low selenium levels, you should balance your diet out with some high-selenium foods.  If you get your food from an area that has decent selenium levels, the FDA states that it’s probably nothing to worry about unless you have increased needs.

Do I need more selenium?

Some groups that have been shown to have low selenium levels include:


How much do I need?

The FDA recommends people get 55 micrograms (mcg) per day.  Some experts think that high-performing athletes, older individuals, people losing weight with exercise, and vegans are more at risk for being deficient. Most Americans get about 120 mcg of selenium per day.

Can I get too much?

Yes!  The FDA says that people shouldn’t eat more than 400 micrograms per day, which isn’t hard to do if you’re eating brazil nuts on the daily, but shouldn’t be a worry if you have an otherwise healthy diet. The first signs of toxic levels are garlic breath, metallic taste, brittle nails and hair loss.

How important is it?

Selenium is the most important mineral for glutathione recycling.  It’s also crucial for thyroid hormone health and normal levels are linked to better heart health

Selenium may be better absorbed with a vitamin C-rich diet (think citrus and green veggies), but not with a vitamin C supplement, aka. ascorbic acid. The best way for your body to use it might be along with other antioxidants like vitamin D, which can raise selenium levels and vitamin E, which may help prevent toxicity - olive oil drizzled salmon, anyone?

Where can I get it?

Just 5 brazil nuts a day can deliver toxic levels, but it might also take 100 - so watch out for signs of overdoing it if you eat them often! That being said, just 1 brazil nut a day is enough to boost glutathione and antioxidant levels - it’s all about moderation.

Sources that are high, but too high, are organ meats, followed by seafood, eggs, mustard and sunflower seeds. Other good sources are beans, spinach, and dairy products like cottage cheese. 

Selenium in plants depends on where they’re grown and is highly variable, so if you want to be confident about your selenium status, locally-raised organ meats and seafood are the best choices.

Bottom Line

  • Your antioxidant system coordinates a number of players to keep your antioxidants - especially glutathione - in their active form, letting you feeling full of energy and ready to take on the challenges of life.
  • Selenium (as selenocysteine) is the first-pass player in the game against oxidative stress. It signals other players to get ready and it absorbs the damage that glutathione took the brunt of.
  • That oxidative damage is passed on to proteins that use copper, zinc, manganese and iron to further neutralize the oxidation.
  • Selenium levels in plants are not reliable. One brazil nut might be enough to meet your daily needs, but levels vary, and its possible to get too much from brazil nuts in particular (watch out for garlic breath!).  Other plants that have selenium are mustard and sunflower seeds, and beans. More consistent selenium levels are found in organ meats, seafood, eggs, and dairy products.

Whether you’re trying to find the lifestyle balance to lower chronic stress or you’re trying to recover your best from pushing your limit, optimizing your total antioxidant system is hugely important - and it goes beyond taking your one-a-day.  Choosing the best foods to boost glutathione and then making sure that your whole system is prepared to support your antioxidants is a winning formula for living your life on your terms. Play hard, recover your best, and maintain your energy through the whole day with the Resync lifestyle! 

See our next post in this series where we decode what methylation means for your heart health. You do not want to miss out on it!

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Comment below with your thoughts and questions and we’ll get back to you in future posts. 

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Written by registered dietitian, Detrick Snyder, MPH, RDN. Updated 09/22/2020

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