What Are Antioxidants?
An antioxidant is a chemical that reduces the rate of particular oxidation reactions in a specific context, where oxidation reactions are chemical reactions that involve the transfer of electrons from a substance to an oxidizing agent.
Antioxidants are particularly important in the context of organic chemistry and biology: all living cells contain complex systems of antioxidant chemicals and/or enzymes to prevent chemical damage to the cells’ components by oxidation. The importance and complexity of antioxidants in biology is reflected in a medical literature of more than 142,000 scholarly articles.
A diet containing antioxidants from plants are required for good health since plants are an important source of organic antioxidant chemicals. Antioxidants are widely used as ingredients in dietary supplements that are used for health purposes such as preventing cancer and heart disease. However, while many studies have suggested benefits for antioxidant supplements, several large clinical trials have failed to clearly demonstrate a benefit for the formulations tested, and excess supplementation may be harmful.
Antioxidants are chemicals that reduce oxidative damage to cells and biochemicals. Researchers have found high correlation between oxidative damage and the occurrence of disease. For example, LDL oxidation is associated with cardiovascular disease. The process leading to atherogenesis, atherosclerosis, and cardiovascular disease is complex, involving multiple chemical pathways and networks, but the precursor is LDL oxidation by free radicals, resulting in inflammation and formation of plaques.
Research suggests that consumption of antioxidant-rich foods reduces damage to cells and biochemicals from free radicals. This may slow down, prevent, or even reverse certain diseases that result from cellular damage, and perhaps even slow down the natural aging process.
Since the discovery of vitamins, it has been recognized that antioxidants in the diet are essential for healthful lives. More recently, a large body of evidence has accumulated that suggests supplementation of the diet with various kinds of antioxidants can improve health and extend life.
Many nutraceutical and health food companies now sell forms of antioxidants as dietary supplements. These supplements may include specific antioxidant chemicals, like resveratrol (from grape seeds), combinations of antioxidants, like the “ACES” products that contain beta carotene (provitamin A), vitamin C, vitamin E and Selenium, or specialty herbs that are known to contain antioxidants such as green tea and jiaogulan.
The prefix ‘anti’ means against, in opposition to, or corrective in nature. In this case, the ‘anti’ in antioxidant describes the effect these chemicals have against oxidants.
Oxidants, usually referred to as ‘free radicals’ are produced as a natural by-product of the millions of biochemical processes undertaken by the body every minute. The same life-giving oxygen that supports all the functions of the body creates these harmful by-products which cause cell damage, usually to DNA, fats and proteins.
Free radicals also enter the body through external influences such as exposure to the sun, pesticides and other kinds of environmental pollution. In addition, their levels are increased by mental and physical stress, the consumption of alcoholic beverages, unhealthy foods, and cigarette smoke.
In much the same way as oxidation causes rust on cars, oxidation inside the body causes a breakdown of cells. If the amount of free radical oxidation in the body is allowed to rise to an unhealthy level, it can result in extensive damage to cellular components and can accelerate the ageing process.
More importantly, it may contribute to a wide range of degenerative illnesses and reduce the body’s ability to deal with other problems, including cardiovascular malfunction, eye disease, and cancer.
Additionally, it may result in a compromised immune system, leading to immunological disorders and a lessening of the body’s ability to heal wounds and overcome infections. Some studies indicate possible links to arthritis and similar chronic conditions.
Antioxidants counter these effects by binding with free radicals before they can cause damage. They then convert them into non-damaging biochemical substances, assisting enormously with the reparation of cellular damage.
Certain antioxidant enzymes are produced within the body. The most well known of these are catalase, superoxide dismutase and glutathione:
Catalase converts hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen.
Superoxide dismutase breaks antioxidants down into hydrogen peroxide.
Glutathione is a detoxifying agent, changing the form of toxins so that they are easily eliminated by the body.
Other antioxidants can be consumed through the diet. Some of the better known include the antioxidant vitamins beta-carotene, vitamin B6, vitamin C and vitamin E.
Minerals such as selenium, zinc, glutathione and co-enzyme Q10 may also have antioxidant properties, and so may flavonoids such as cranberry, some amino acids, plus organic extracts from milk thistle and the tree known as ginkgo biloba.
A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables provides a large supply of these antioxidants, to help eliminate damaging free radicals. The highest concentrations are found in fruits and leafy green vegetables, such as carrots, orange and red peppers, spinach and tomatoes.
Cooking can destroy some antioxidants and interfere with the body’s ability to absorb them, so eating raw vegetables and fruit, and including sprouts in the diet can help. Steaming vegetables as opposed to frying, microwaving or boiling is also a good idea.
Antioxidants are best taken in combination, since single antioxidants, such as vitamin E, need other vitamins in order to work as an effective antioxidant. Food and natural supplements may therefore provide the most bioavailable source of antioxidants. Natural products from the rainforests of the world are some of the best sources of natural antioxidants ever found. Fruits like the acai berry are amazing in the health world because of the wide range and high number of antioxidants they contain, making them a perfect source of antioxidants. It’s no wonder that the acai berry has been dubbed one of the top 10 “superfoods” in the world.
The information presented here should not be interpreted as medical advice. If you need more information about Antioxidants, please consult your physician or a qualified specialist.