Antioxidants are substances, chemicals, that are capable of counteracting damage done to the body through the normal process of oxidation. Antioxidants are nutrients, often vitamins and minerals, as well is enzymes produced by the body. The oxidation process happens during normal metabolism in the production of energy in the body. This oxidation process produces free radicals which are chemically active atoms or fragments of molecules that have changed because of an excess or deficient number of electrons.
Because free radicals have one or more unpaired electrons they are highly unstable. Their objective is to become stable and they scavenged through the body looking for other cells that can donate an electron or where they can grab another electron. This process damages the cells, proteins and the genetic material in the body. Researchers believe that antioxidants play a role in preventing the development of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cataracts just to name a few of the diseases believed to be triggered in part by the damage done to cells from free radicals.
It is impossible for humans to avoid the damage done by these free radicals because they arise from sources both inside and outside the body. The oxidation as a result of normal respiration, metabolism and inflammation produces free radicals while others formed in the environment from pollution, sunlight, strenuous exercise, x-rays, smoking and alcohol all cause similar damage inside the body.
This oxidative process is the same thing that turns an apple slice brown, makes fish become rancid or develops a raw and inflamed area on a cut on your skin. To help protect the body from this oxidation are thousands of different antioxidants that are in a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes.
Anti-oxidants work in a specific manner to alleviate the damage done by free radicals in the body. These free radicals happened in 1% or 2% of cells that gets damaged in the process of oxidation. The term “free” is used because they are missing a critical molecule which sends them on a rampage to find they are missing part.
The danger is not that a free radical will simply kill a cell. The problem is that they injure the cells and damage DNA. When a cell’s DNA changes it mutates and can grow abnormally, reproducing quickly and abnormally. Normal cell function inside the body often produces a small percentage of free radicals but these are generally not a large problem. It is the external toxins which we breathe in, pesticides, alcohol, tobacco and pollution which triggers substantial free radical production and damage.
This damage will set off a chain reaction within the body. This can overwhelm the body’s natural defense system and, with repeated attacks, damage can lead to a host of chronic illnesses. Oxidative damage in skin cells is caused by the cumulative effect of ultraviolet rays. This is called photo aging and often results in brown spots or “liver spots”. However, if the free radicals occur in an internal organ it stimulates reactions in those tissues.
Antioxidants work by blocking the process of oxidation. In the fact they neutralize free radicals, which is why there is a constant need to replenish these resources in the body. They work in one of two ways. In the first case the free radical releases or steals an electron and then a second free radical is formed. This second molecule turns around and does the same thing to another molecule which continues to generate more unstable molecules in a very quick process. The process stops when the molecule is stabilized by a chain breaking antioxidant or simply decays into a harmless chemical.
In the second case the antioxidant prevents oxidation by reducing the rate of initiation. They scavenged free radicals and can stop the chain formation from ever being set in motion. These are often antioxidant enzymes such as catalase and glutathione.
The effectiveness of the antioxidant will depend upon the free radical in the target of damage. Vitamin C will often stop chain reactions because it captures the free radical and neutralizes it. Flavanoids are the biggest class of antioxidants and researchers have identified over 5000 different chemicals in a variety of foods.
Another class of antioxidants are polyphenols, which scientists may referred to as phenols. These are group of chemical substances found in plants and often found in berries, tea, olive oil, chocolates, peanuts and other fruits.
The food and drug administration recommends that an individual consumes 3000 units of Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity per day, a way of measuring the amount of antioxidants found in your food. For example, 100 g of blueberries contains 2400 units and 100 g of spinach contains 1230 units. It is quite easy to consume the recommended amount daily by simply eating a diet full of fruits and vegetables. These antioxidants can then get to work to help to stabilize free radicals which have been linked to chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and immune mediated diseases such as diabetes and lupus.