Antioxidants and polyphenols? Sounds like a bunch of health and wellness buzzwords, we know. 

Fortunately, these are the real deal and not just another supplement or product you have to buy. They’re actually found in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, tea, coffee, dark chocolate, olive oil, and more. 

Antioxidants and polyphenols have a whole host of health benefits, including anti-inflammatory effects, improved cognitive and immune function, enhanced blood flow and blood pressure, greater gut microbiome diversity, and more — all of which have downstream positive implications for your overall hormone production and balance. 

And the best part is, because they’re coming in whole food form, they have no known side effects. 

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are compounds found in plant-based foods, especially those high in vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and selenium that prevent or slow down cellular damage caused by free radicals. You can think of them as “neutralizers” of free radicals. 

Free radicals are unstable molecules that occur naturally as byproducts of metabolism. Free radicals can also be generated from environmental pollutants, radiation, and smoking. 

If left unregulated, free radicals can cause oxidative stress, which is when there’s an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body’s ability to neutralize them through natural defense mechanisms, such as enzymes and antioxidants. 

Oxidative stress can lead to damage to various cellular components, including DNA, and other tissues in the body, which can potentially result in chronic health issues later down the line such as neurodegenerative diseases, inflammation, accelerated aging, autoimmune conditions, and more. 

What are polyphenols? 

Polyphenols are a large class of plant compounds that are characterized by the presence of multiple phenol rings in their chemical structure, which is a key feature in naturally occurring compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. 

While not all polyphenols have strong antioxidant activity, many of them do, which help to scavenge free radicals and reduce oxidative stress in the body. 

Polyphenols have also been associated with potential anticancer properties, blood sugar regulation, increased microbiome diversity, improved skin health, neuroprotective and anti-aging effects, and more. 

Where do you find antioxidants and polyphenols? 

There are dozens of foods rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, which is why it’s generally recommended you get your daily dose of them in whole food form, instead of through supplements — especially since the nutrients are more bioavailable (ie, able to be absorbed and put to use by your body) when obtained from whole foods. 

Here’s our go-to list of antioxidant and polyphenol-rich foods: 

Fruits: berries (eg, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries), cherries, grapes, pomegranates, citrus fruits (eg, oranges, lemons), and apples

Vegetables: dark leafy greens (eg, spinach, kale), broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, and sweet potatoes

Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and sunflower seeds

Herbs and spices: turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, oregano, and rosemary

Green and black tea

Coffee: ideally Organic and from a high-quality source (eg, fair trade, sustainably sourced) since coffee can sometimes contain glyphosate residue or mycotoxins 

Legumes: beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans

Dark chocolate: with a high cacao content (70% or more)

Whole grains: oats, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and barley 

4 ways antioxidants & polyphenols help with hormone balance 

If you’re trying to keep your hormones in check, antioxidants and polyphenols are definitely your friend. Here’s how they lend a hand with your hormones: 

1. Supports detoxification 

Your body’s natural detoxification process, which takes place through the liver, plays a significant role in hormone production and regulation by preventing the buildup of metabolic waste products and other toxins that can disrupt hormone balance.

Polyphenols can stimulate bile production which supports the elimination of toxins from your liver. They also prompt the production of other enzymes involved in detoxification pathways, which strengthens the liver's ability to process and eliminate effectively.

2. Balances estrogen levels 

Phytoestrogens (naturally occurring compounds in plant foods such as legumes, tempeh, edamame, and tofu with a chemical structure similar to the hormone estrogen) have a subtle estrogenic effect, enabling them to bind to estrogen receptors and modulate estrogen activity. 

This means they can either mimic or block the effects of estrogen, depending on your body's needs. This balancing effect can be helpful in instances such as menopause, irregular cycles, or PCOS where estrogen levels fluctuate.

Some polyphenols can also boost enzyme activity involved in estrogen metabolism, which may help eliminate excess estrogen from the body when needed. 

3. Encourages stress adaptation

Chronic stress can disrupt hormone balance by affecting your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates your stress response. Antioxidants and polyphenols have been shown to support the HPA axis by governing the production and release of cortisol, your primary stress hormone.  

4. Strengthens insulin sensitivity 

Insulin is a hormone that controls your blood sugar levels by pulling circulating blood glucose into your tissues so you can convert it into energy. Polyphenols have been shown to enhance insulin sensitivity, which empowers your body to use insulin more efficiently. 

Improved insulin sensitivity helps prevent insulin resistance, a condition associated with PCOS and other instances of hormonal imbalance where your body becomes less responsive to the effects of insulin.

7 ways to get more antioxidants & polyphenols in your diet 

Be the expert in you.

Take the Quiz

1. Try Daily Harvest 

Or other easy-to-prepare meals that are loaded up with a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices so you don’t even have to think about getting a great diversity of plant-rich foods — it’s automatically made into a default for you instead. 

Always read your ingredient labels before clicking go on a meal delivery service since many of them can have hidden junk in their ingredient panel. 

Fortunately, Daily Harvest has your back since theirs is short, simple, and fully readable (no wonky words hidden in there). 

2. Use herbs and spices in your cooking 

A pro tip is to buy a herb and spice shaker that’s rich with a variety of herbs and spices so you check off several boxes all at once or make your own by combining several of your favorites. 

3. Mix it up with your fruits and vegetables

It’s easy to get stuck in the pattern of consuming the same fruits and vegetables on repeat, especially after you find something you like. 

But because different fruits and vegetables contain different antioxidants and polyphenols, the more variety you bring into your diet, the more your body is able to utilize all those nutrients in your favor. One way to ensure you are consuming a variety of fruits and veggies is to fill your plate with different colors - aka eating the rainbow.

4. Don’t overcook your food 

Overcooking your food can degrade the antioxidants and polyphenols in your meals. Steaming, sautéing, and stir-frying at medium heat until they’re tender-crisp rather than soft-mushy helps retain more of these compounds compared to boiling or prolonged high-heat cooking. 

5. Enjoy dark chocolate as a healthy dessert 

Dark chocolate with a high cacao content (70% or more) is rich in antioxidants, including polyphenols called flavonoids.  Given its high caloric content, consume dark chocolate in moderation.

6. Make coffee or tea a daily ritual 

We all love our morning coffee or tea and midday breaks for a reason — it provides such a beautiful and relaxing ritual. And the upside is, both are loaded with polyphenols and antioxidants. Enjoying a cup or two can be an incredible way to increase your intake. 

7. Choose single-ingredient foods 

Highly processed foods almost always have a lower antioxidant and polyphenol content even if in their unprocessed state, they’d naturally be high in them. For example, apple juice has a reduced nutrient content compared to a whole apple. Opt for single-ingredient, unprocessed foods whenever possible. 

To learn more about the benefits of eating a diet rich in antioxidants and polyphenols read this article, and use the code RESCRIPTED to get $50 off your first box at Daily Harvest!

Caroline McMorrow is Rescripted's Content Manager.