Antioxidants get a lot of overhyped claims, especially from people who want to sell them as a way to avoid aging or cancer (sorry, but nothing can prevent you from aging, and nothing can completely remove the risk of getting cancer). But that doesn’t mean they’re useless; it just means you have to look beneath the unsubstantiated hype to find the actual benefits.
One of those benefits is gut health. Antioxidants can work their antioxidant magic on the lining of the gut, protect the cells lining the gut by controlling inflammation, and help support the growth of healthy bacteria. They also seem to magnify the effects of other gut-healing strategies like prebiotics and probiotics, so they’re a valuable addition to a gut-healing diet.
Antioxidants and the Gut Lining
One way that antioxidants can be beneficial to the gut is through protecting the lining of the gut. The cells lining the gut, called epithelial cells, have a tough job: they have to let the good stuff (like nutrients) into your bloodstream, but keep out everything that doesn’t belong (whether it’s actively bad stuff like dangerous bacteria or just food that hasn’t been digested yet).
Some evidence suggests that antioxidants can help protect the cells lining the gut in ways that might be particularly important for people with inflammatory gut conditions or serious infections. For example, in humans, H. pylori infection can cause the cells of the gut lining to die more quickly, but antioxidants help protect against this.
This is a huge benefit, because problems with the lining of the gut are involved in the development of autoimmune diseases and other inflammatory conditions.
Antioxidants and the Gut Flora
The gut flora, aka the gut microbiome, gut biome, or gut microbiota, refers to the collection of friendly bacteria that live in your gut. This review goes over the evidence that dietary polyphenols (one specific type of antioxidant, found mostly in plants) have beneficial effects on the gut flora:
- Polyphenol antioxidants can encourage helpful bacteria to grow.
- Polyphenol antioxidants can also discourage dangerous bacteria. Unfortunately, your gut also plays host to bacteria that can be dangerous.
And this was shown in studies with human subjects eating actual whole foods, too; it wasn’t just studies where the researchers gave a group of mice a huge amount of green tea extract or pure resveratrol or something that isn’t realistically possible to get from diet. Interventions included red wine, apples, raspberries, and coffee.
This review notes that the process goes two ways. It’s not just that antioxidants affect the gut flora. The gut flora can also change the way your body processes and uses antioxidants.
Antioxidants as One Part of a Gut-Health Diet
Another interesting way to explore antioxidants is to look at how they can fit into an overall gut-healing program. In other words, what if you’re already taking something like probiotics or prebiotics? What would antioxidants add to that? How would they interact with any gut-healing remedies you’re already using? Do they have benefits if you’re already doing everything else right?
Yes, actually. Antioxidants seem to enhance the effects of other gut-healing therapies.
Cobiotics are one example. No, that’s not a typo for prebiotics or probiotics – it’s a whole new prefix that slapped on the start of “-biotics” to indicate something that acts on the gut flora. A cobiotic provides a combination of antioxidants and prebiotics.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the various –biotics, just for clarity’s sake:
- Prebiotics provide food (mostly fiber) for your gut flora to eat. The more they eat, the more they reproduce, so if you want more of what you already have, prebiotics are the way to go. (see here for more on prebiotics)
- Probiotics provide beneficial bacteria in pill form. If you want something different than what you already have, probiotics are the way to get it.
- Synbiotics are various combinations of pre- and pro-biotics.
- Cobiotics, which is what we’re discussing here, combine prebiotics (fiber for your gut flora to eat) with antioxidants that act on the gut wall.
Cobiotics are so new that a PubMed search only turns up two studies. One of them is a case report about a single person, which means it isn’t terribly valuable for concluding anything people in general (since that one person could have just been unique). But the other one is really interesting.
In this study, the researchers gave one group of mice a normal diet, and the other group a junk food diet. But some of the junk food mice also got a cobiotic containing
- Lycopene, an antioxidant from tomatoes, and/or
- A prebiotic fiber (iomalto-oligosaccharide, or IMO for short) that has some evidence supporting its benefits for the gut biome.
As you’d probably expect, without the cobiotic, the junk-food mice gained weight. But at high enough doses, the cobiotic actually prevented weight gain. The cobiotic also helped normalize the blood sugar of the junk-food mice and prevent insulin resistance. It prevented liver damage and some obesity-related changes to the gut lining and the composition of the gut biome. And just for good measure, it reduced overall inflammation.
The cobiotic was more effective than the prebiotic alone or the antioxidants alone.
There’s also this review, which provides a bunch of evidence that the gut-health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet come from its combination of prebiotics, probiotics, and antioxidants (and Omega-3 fats, but that’s a whole different issue) all working together with each other and magnifying each other’s effects. The review called it “mutual cooperation:” a diet including prebiotics, probiotics, and antioxidants is better than the sum of its parts.
Food vs. Supplements
The studies linked here suggest that you can get significant effects from the amount of antioxidants in food. Some of the most common foods in the studies seem to be:
- Berries (blueberries and raspberries especially)
- Coffee and tea (particularly great for people who have gut problems that make it hard to digest a lot of “roughage” or people on very low-carb diets!)
These are natural food sources of the antioxidants used in the studies above, but a diet generally rich in fruits and vegetables will also supply a whole variety of antioxidants and prebiotic fibers, conveniently packaged together.
Summing it Up
Antioxidants might not cure cancer or reverse aging, but they do seem to be beneficial for overall gut health, especially when they’re combined with other gut-friendly things like prebiotic fiber. And they also seem to magnify or enhance the effects of other gut therapies like prebiotics and probiotics, so they’re valuable to people trying to heal from gut problems or prevent them from starting.
It also seems from the studies we have that you can get those benefits from antioxidant-rich whole foods, like tea and berries. Pomegranate green tea, anyone?