What are Antioxidants?

Cells in the human body use oxygen to breakdown proteins and fats. The body derives its energy from using nutrients and oxygen as fuel. Oxygen is also used to help the immune system destroy foreign elements and fight diseases. This process can lead to the development of molecular toxins that react with body tissues in the process of oxidation. Oxidation is a natural process of energy generation which creates free radicals that damage healthy cells. These damages are normal. An antioxidant is a substance that is capable of counter acting these damages. Antioxidants are nutrients (vitamins and minerals), as well as enzymes (proteins in your body that assist in chemical reactions). They are believed to play a role in preventing the development of cardiovascular diseases, neurological disease, malignancies, renal diseases, diabetes, inflammatory problems, skin diseases, aging, respiratory diseases, liver diseases and different types of viral infections.

Antioxidants help in:

  1. Destroying the free radicals that damage cells
  2. Promoting the growth of healthy cells
  3. Protecting the cells against premature and abnormal aging
  4. Fighting age related degeneration of cells
  5. Providing support for the body’s immune system

A Scientific Understanding

What are Free Radicals?

Oxidative stress occurs when the production of harmful molecules called free radicals exceeds the protective capability of the antioxidant defenses. Free radicals are chemically active atoms or molecular fragments that have a charge due to an excess or deficient number of electrons. Examples of free radicals include the superoxide anion, hydroxyl radical, transition metals like iron and copper, nitric acid, and ozone. Free radicals containing oxygen, known as Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), are the most biologically significant free radicals. ROS include the radical superoxide and hydroxyl radical, plus any derivative of oxygen that does not contain unpaired electrons, such as hydrogen peroxide, singlet oxygen, and hypochlorous acid. Due to their one or more unpaired electrons, these free radicals are highly unstable. They scavenge the body to find or give away their electrons. This process damages cells, proteins and DNA (genetic material). This same process also causes oils to become rancid, peeled apples to turn brown, and iron to rust.

It is impossible to avoid the damage by free radicals. Free radicals arise from sources both inside (endogenous) and outside (exogenous) our bodies. Endogenous oxidants result from normal aerobic respiration, metabolism, and inflammation. Exogenous free radicals form from environmental factors such as pollution, sunlight, strenuous exercise, X-rays, smoking and alcohol consumption. The human body is not perfect, and thus, as the body ages or is under excessive stress, the antioxidant systems don’t work as well, or is not strong enough to counteract the stress, and cell parts that are damaged from oxidation begin to accumulate. This leads to conditions that lead to ill health.

How do Antioxidants help against fee radicals?

Antioxidants block the process of oxidation by neutralizing free radicals. In doing so, the antioxidants themselves become oxidized. This why there is a need to constantly replenish the antioxidant resources in the body.

How they work can be classified in two ways:

  1. Chain-breaking - When a free radical releases or steals an electron, a second radical is formed. This molecule then turns around and does the same thing to a third molecule, continuing to generate more unstable products. The process continues until termination occurs - either the radical is stabilized by a chain-breaking antioxidant such as beta-carotene and vitamins C and E, among other essential nutrients, or it simply decays into a harmless product.
  2. Preventive - Antioxidant enzymes like superoxide dismutase, catalase, and gluthathione peroxidase prevent oxidation by reducing the rate of chain initiation. That is, by scavenging initiating radicals, such antioxidants can thwart an oxidation chain from ever setting in motion. They can also prevent oxidation by stabilizing transition metal radicals such as copper and iron.

The effectiveness of any given antioxidant in the body depends on which free radical is involved, how and where it was generated, and where the target of damage is. Thus, while in one particular system an antioxidant may protect against free radicals, in other systems it could have no effect at all. Or, in some circumstances, an antioxidant may even act as a “pro-oxidant” that generates toxic oxygen species. Therefore, while it is important to have antioxidants in your body, there needs to be a balance of the different kinds of antioxidants with other nutrients that your body requires.

Key Points

Antioxidants are important for the body to get rid of toxins and allowing your body to remain healthy. These toxins can come into you body through natural processes that occur in the body or through the environment. Environmental factors include the food you eat and the pollution around you. When the normal process of oxidation becomes abnormal, several elusive conditions can occur. These include, but are not limited to, fribromyalgia, chronic fatigue, inflammation of the whole body and body organs, including the brain, depression, lack of motivation, excessive sleep, infertility, joint problems, and weight gain.

Antioxidants are used constantly in the body, and thus, need to be replenished constantly. This is why a stream of antioxidants should be included in your diet.

What about Antioxidant supplements?

Supplements can also be taken to raise the amount of antioxidants in your body. Caution: Supplements should be taken in moderation. Excessive amounts of supplements that you don’t need is not good for your body either. Make sure you take supplement with the advise of a physician with expertise in holistic medicine.