Antioxidants in Depth
"Eat your fruits and veggies for the antioxidants." "Look for skin care products rich in antioxidants." "Antioxidants are good for you." Yeah. We get it. Antioxidants are the best thing since sliced bread. (Truth. They probably are!) But what does that mean? How do they work? Why are they so awesome? Antioxidants are touted by the media and advertisers and the word is tossed at us right and left. They want you to take notice, and for good reason! Antioxidants offer a world of benefits to our bodies, and it's not just auxiliary. They are vital to our health and longevity.
What Are Antioxidants?According to Webster's Dictionary, an antioxidant is
- A substance (such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, and alpha-tocopherol) that inhibits oxidation or reactions promoted by oxygen and peroxides and free radicals.
So, antioxidants are our knights in shining armor!
Understanding the Dragon: Free Radicals
Antioxidants protect your cells from free radicals, which are formed when oxygen in the body splits- a result of either normal metabolic processes or due to an environmental stressor like smoke and toxins. When oxygen splits, it results in single atoms with unpaired electrons (oxidation). Those are "free radicals." Electrons do not like to be lonely, so the free radicals are constantly searching for a mate. They careen around our body seeking out other electrons to pair with, resulting in damage to cells, protein, and DNA. Picture rust on a railing or a browning apple after you cut it. That's oxidation.
Free radicals are linked to numerous diseases including cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease. The've been implicated in the aging process, which has been defined as a gradual accumulation of free-radical damage, according to Christopher Wanjek, the Bad Medicine columnist for Live Science. The food we eat, medicines we take, air we breathe, and water we drink all contain substances that generate free radicals, according to Huntington's Outreach Project for Education at Stanford University. These include pesticides and air pollutants, tobacco smoke, alcohol, and fried foods! Free radicals are also the natural byproducts of chemical processes like metabolism. Dr. Lauri Wright, a registered dietitian and an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of South Florida, says, "Basically, I think of free radicals as waste products from various chemical reactions in the cell that when built up, harm the cells of the body."
Starting With the Basics
- Atoms are the basic building blocks of, well, everything! They are made up of tiny protons (that hold a positive [+] charge) and neutrons in their center, with electrons (that hold a negative [-] charge) rotating around the outside.
- Linking more than one atom together creates a molecule. Hundreds of atoms together are what make up things like DNA, proteins, and fats.
- Chemical reactions in the body constantly rearrange the molecules by breaking them apart into smaller pieces (with less atoms), or combining them into larger molecules (with more atoms). This can be the result of metabolism of sugars, fatty acids, and amino acids. During this process, protons and electrons must be properly paired to even out the charge to zero. One proton (+) plus one electron (-) equals zero. That creates a stable molecule.
- When something happens to cause a molecule to inadvertently lose an electron, the result is a free radical. It's missing an electron, so it's constantly searching for another one to take its place. It will scour the body, raping, pillaging, and plundering. Free radicals are unstable, electrically charged molecules that can react with other molecules (like your DNA) and damage them.
When Evil Rules the LandIf the balance of free radicals overturns the number of antioxidants, the result is oxidative stress. Important molecules become severely damaged, and cells may die. Certain things can contribute to this process, encouraging free radical formation and oxidative stress:
- Cigarette smoke
- Radiation (like, the kind you get from the sun!)
- Air pollution
- High blood sugar levels
- Alcohol consumption
- Too many polyunsaturated fatty acids (found mostly in seed oils, seeds, nuts, fish, and oysters)
- Intense, prolonged exercise (which can cause tissue damage)
- Antioxidant deficiency (like, when you don't eat enough of a food variety involving leafy greens, colorful vegetables, and chicken)