Antioxidants are all the rage these days, seemingly good for whatever ails you or your pet. The good news is that much of the hype actually is true, and the better news is that herbs are excellent sources of antioxidants. Even better, herbs not only provide a wide variety of antioxidants (as we’ll see, an important part of how they should be used), but they also are among the safest sources known.
How do Antioxidants Work?
During the process of healthy metabolism, carbohydrates and sugars are “burned” in the presence of oxygen to provide the animal with energy. Most of the raw materials involved in metabolism are converted to energy.
In all energy reactions in the body, however, there are some molecular fragments that aren’t totally used up, and some of these are chemically active fragments that have an electrical charge due to an excess or deficient number of electrons. These charged molecules are called free radicals.
Because they have one or more unpaired electrons, free radicals are highly unstable. They scavenge the animal’s body to grab or donate electrons, thereby damaging cells, proteins and DNA itself. This same oxidative process also causes oils to become rancid, peeled fruits to brown and iron to rust.
Normal aerobic respiration and food metabolism create a constant source of free radicals, but a host of other activities produce excessive free radicals as well, among them excessive exercise; inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis; and the abnormal cell growth that’s associated with most types of cancer. Free radicals also can come from outside factors including pollution, sunlight, tobacco smoke and X-rays.
Most animals are capable of dealing with a normal amount of free radicals, but excessive free radicals can produce disease. In addition, animals that are stressed, or aging animals with organ systems and immune functions that are beginning to wane, may need some help to eliminate free radicals.
Antioxidants are the antidote for an excess of free radicals in the body. The term “antioxidant” refers to the activity of numerous vitamins, minerals and other phytochemicals to serve as protection against the damaging effects of free radicals.
There are many claims for the benefits of antioxidants for our pets, including helping maintain long-term wellness through their anti-aging activities; cancer prevention; promoting healthy vision and eyesight; prevention of heart disease; preventing and treating arthritis; enhancing the body’s immune functions; and providing the animal with a degree of exercise tolerance.
Three vitamins—A, C and E—are the primary dietary antioxidants, although there are hundreds of other substances that have antioxidant activity. These essential vitamins are manufactured by plants, and many commonly used herbs are especially high in vitamin activity. In addition, many herbs have additional, non-vitamin-related, antioxidant activity, and in fact, herbs and spices often are the very best sources of both vitamins and antioxidants.
How to Dose Antioxidants
The majority of the popular antioxidants appear to be extremely safe; the main area where problems might occur is when we try to use therapeutic megadoses of vitamins and minerals. Megadoses, in extreme cases, may be toxic, or the higher level of one vitamin may create an imbalance between substances that need to be kept in balance to be effective. An example here is that vitamin E dosages need to be balanced with selenium levels in order for either to be effective.
However, when we are using fresh or dried herbs to supply our pets with antioxidants (and vitamins), there is much less to worry about—herbs typically contain only small amounts of any one substance, and the dosages you would add to a pet’s diet would typically be far below any potentially toxic level.
The science of how to best provide antioxidants has given us some tips for application for our pets:
• Whenever possible, use natural food sources known to be high in antioxidants. There is considerable evidence to indicate that antioxidants from a natural, dietary food source are more effective than those taken in supplement form. If it helps make the food more palatable for your pet’s taste buds, go ahead and chop up vegetables, fruits and herbs, heat them naturally, and hide them in some of your pet’s favorite foods, such as a chunk of meat.
• Many antioxidants found in foods are made more readily available in foods that have been pureed and/or naturally heated—the antioxidant lycopene, found in tomatoes, is an example here. One exception to this rule is vitamin C, which is destroyed by heating. Drying foods usually diminishes the amount of vitamins and antioxidants available to the animal. It also is thought that microwaving destroys many nutrients, including most, if not all, antioxidants.
• Use several sources to provide a mix of antioxidants—herbs, vegetables and fruits are excellent sources. These and fruits provide a good variety.
• A mix of antioxidants is important because many of them work synergistically—the sum of the activities of several different antioxidants often is many times higher than would be obtained by adding the sum of their accumulated effects together.
Following are several examples of antioxidant-rich herbs that you can sprinkle over your pet’s food, both to increase nutrition and to provide your pet with some necessary spice in his diet. Note that most of the herbs, in addition to being abundant in vitamin and antioxidant activity, contain other ingredients that provide specific medicinal activity and/or help to maintain healthy function of one or more organ systems.
In a recent analysis, oregano was named “king of antioxidants.” Some types of oregano tested as having higher amounts of antioxidants than others—the highest score went to Mexican oregano (Poliomintha bustamanta), which tested just slightly higher than Italian oregano (Origanum ×majoricum). The third highest score was Greek mountain oregano (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum), which is the most commonly available variety in the United States.
In this same analysis, other herbs that tested high included dill (Anethum graveolens), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), peppermint (Mentha ×piperita), sage (Salvia officinalis), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum). That’s a pretty good handful to select from when trying to please your pet’s taste buds.
But this was only one assay of a small number of herbs. Other studies have found healthy levels of antioxidants in astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), basil (Ocimum basilicum), bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), burdock (Arctium lappa), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), ginger (Zingiber officinale), green tea (Camellia sinensis), milk thistle (Silybum marianum) and a host of others. Some of my favorite herbs, the common backyard weeds, also have been shown to have significant antioxidant activity. For example, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) outdid spinach in many measurements of antioxidant activity. In fact, the list of herbs and weeds proven to be rich in antioxidants is limited only by the assays that have been performed—once again, herbs, no matter their species, are almost invariably heavy-duty antioxidant (and vitamin) producers.
It’s important to step back and realize that much of the hype on specific plants that contain antioxidants depends on what herb is under scrutiny at any given time. This month’s herb is likely being ballyhooed because some lab just ran tests on it and had them published where the media could pick up and run with the data. Next month there will likely be another “herb of the month,” and we’ll all think that this one is the “silver bullet” cure for everything.
There is almost no limit to the repertory you can draw from to provide your pet with a healthy dose of antioxidants. In the end, with our pets, it’s not so much which source of antioxidants we use; rather, it is that we find the antioxidant sources that our pets enjoy eating, and then use them routinely. Experiment. Try several herbs, fruits and berries … until you and your pet come to an agreement on which ones he thinks are an acceptable part of his diet. And, keep trying a variety of herbs, greens and fruits to keep your pet’s diet interesting.•
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for 10 years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri. Visit our website, www.HerbsForHealth.com, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.
Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.