Antioxidants. We hear about them all the time. “Eat your berries and your greens because they are full of antioxidants.” But what are these compounds that are claimed to have a wealth of benefits to the body? And how do they work?
Before we explore these fascinating molecules, let’s discuss their rival — the free radical. Free radicals are highly reactive unstable oxygen molecules that contain an unpaired electron. They seek electrons from other cells to become stable. They are formed as a waste product of oxygen, and become a problem when there are more free radicals in the body than the antioxidants — which provide that spare electron — can deal with. The job of the antioxidant is to “clean up” or more specifically neutralize the free radicals, slowing or preventing oxidative damage. If free radicals overwhelm the body’s ability to regulate them, a condition known as oxidative stress follows.
But free radicals are not all bad. In fact they can help the body to fight viruses, bacteria and toxins! For example, Leucocytes (white blood cells) produce free radicals to kill such pathogens. It is when free radical production outside of normal metabolic processes takes place that we suffer oxidative stress, for example, toxins, injury, infection, extreme sun exposure, stress, radiation, and excessive exercise.
Oxidative stress can harm the cells causing damage and cell death. When this happens we are exposed to premature ageing, inflammation and degenerative diseases such as cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and arteriosclerosis.
So, back to antioxidants…
The term antioxidant is really more of a chemical property, referring to its ability to act as an electron donor to free radicals. Each one has a unique chemical behavior and properties of their own. This means we need to make a range of them available to the body. Some of them are produced naturally in the body through the metabolism such as glutathione, ubiquinol, melatonin and uric acid, as part of normal metabolism, and others are found in the diet, the most well-known ones being Vitamins E, C and B-carotene.
However as we age even those normally produced by the body become diminished, and we become more vulnerable to disease.
Nonetheless taking antioxidants in large quantities from artificial means has not shown great success in clinical trials. Antioxidants should be taken in their natural form or produced by the body, for their best defense against disease.
An organic diet rich in fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds and green tea will provide a rich natural source of powerful antioxidants that cannot be made by in the cells.
Author: Lorraine Ereira