Antioxidants: How they work

Antioxidants are very powerful substances that work for the body in a very beneficial way. To name a few ways, they slow the aging process, boost the immune system, and help fight off some diseases. But how on earth do they do that? Well here’s the scoop: all about antioxidants.

What are Antioxidants
Anti, meaning “against,” and oxidant, meaning “related to oxygen or oxidation.” Those two words put together, antioxidant, mean the ability to fight and protect against the damage of oxidation. But the oxidation of what? Oxidation is actually a normal physiological process in animal tissue; but unfortunately it causes a stress known as oxidative stress. This phenomenon occurs when the production of harmful molecules, called free radicals, is more damaging than what the antioxidants can handle. Anytime a molecule comes into contact with oxygen, the molecule becomes oxidized, and it is inevitable that the cell will change. This is true for rotting fruit, such as an apple turning brown, a cut on the skin, and what have you.

Now, let me give you some definitions:
Antioxidant: a substance capable of fighting and repairing the damage of free radicals.

Oxidative Stress: the stress put on the body when free radicals are being produced faster than the antioxidants in the body can fight off.

Free Radicals: a chemically active molecule that, scientifically speaking, has a charge because of an uneven number of electrons (either too many or too few electrons) and is unstable. Since all atoms naturally want to be stable, these free radicals take electrons from the DNA, cells, and proteins. Instead of just killing the cell, they damage it, which is even worse. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “damaging free radicals.”

Is it possible to avoid free radicals and the damage they cause?
It is biologically impossible to avoid accumulating free radicals in the body because they come from both external (environmental) and internal (from the body) sources. Environmental factors that develop free radicals are pollution, sunlight, strenuous exercise, X-rays, smoking, and alcohol. Inside the body, free radicals are a by-product of metabolism, aerobic respiration, and inflammation. As you can see, most of these are impossible to avoid. Over the years, the antioxidant system experiences the normal wear and tear of aging, and free radicals buildup significantly if antioxidants are not continuously taken in through the diet.

How Antioxidants Work
Antioxidants fight against free radicals by neutralizing them, or donating an electron or electrons to the free radicals until they become stable. The laws of nature imply that antioxidants then become unstable by losing electrons, so that is why it is so important to replenish them daily. The whole thing is sort of like a molecular war. Now, before the work of antioxidants, free radicals are free to take whatever electron they please, and it starts a domino effect. The second the first free radical takes an electron, the molecule now missing the electron will turn around and do the same thing to his neighbor, and so on. Antioxidants work by interrupting this chain or preventing it from starting in the first place.

How Much Do I Need?
The most common recommendation about consuming antioxidants is to make sure you get a well-rounded diet, getting an adequate amount from each food group. Since most of the high antioxidants are vitamins and minerals, and excess amounts of those can cause problems, it is best to follow the above advice.

What Foods are High in Antioxidants?
Vitamins A (beta-carotene), vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium are all potent antioxidants. In addition, there are other types of substances that act as free radicals, such as polyphenols (also known as phytochemicals) and flavonoids. Here is a list of what foods contain which antioxidant.

  • Vitamin A: beta-carotene is the form of vitamin A found in foods (once it enters the body it is converted to Vitamin A) and it is abundant in carrots, cantaloupe, papaya, mangoes, pumpkin, peppers, spinach, kale, squash, and sweet potatoes.
  • Vitamin C: citrus fruits, leafy green vegetables, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cantaloupe, and strawberries.
  • Vitamin E: vegetable oils, walnuts, almonds, olives, avocado, wheat germ, liver, and leafy green vegetables.
  • Selenium: beef, pork, chicken, seafood, and whole wheat bread.
  • Polyphenols: all of the foods listed also have some type of polyphenol.
  • Flavonols: citrus, tea, wine, and dark chocolate.

Other good sources: whole grains, beans, legumes, tea, coffee, hazelnuts, pecans, and many vitamins and herbs.

Last updated on Mar 2nd, 2011 and filed under Nutritional Information. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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