The past two decades have witnessed a considerable change in nutritional thinking. There is now a known link between what we eat and various diseases. For example, antioxidants are potent weapons against heart disease, cancer, and aging. Young or old, we can benefit from antioxidants. 

What do antioxidants do simple terms?

An antioxidant is a protective substance that helps neutralize damaging oxidation reactions in the body. These reactions are triggered by chemicals known as free radicals. A free radical is a molecular fragment carrying a small negative charge – an extra electron. This charge makes the free radical highly unstable, so it tries to lose the electron by passing it on during interactions with other molecules and cell structures. Chemically speaking, this electron loss is an oxidation reaction.

Chain Reactions

The loss of the spare electron by the free radical automatically produces another unstable free radical from the molecule that accepts the electron, which needs to pass on the negative charge. As a result, oxidation triggers chain reactions in which electrons are transferred from one molecule to the next with damaging consequences. Body proteins, lipids, cell membranes, and genetic material like DNA are constantly under attack from free radicals.

Damaged Genes

When DNA is damaged, mutations occur that are thought to trigger cancer. For example, the oxidation of harmful LDL-cholesterol in the blood creates changes that cause scavenger cells called macrophages to recognize the fat as foreign. The macrophages then engulf the fat to try to remove it. Eventually, the macrophages become overloaded and form foam cells. These leave the circulation by squeezing between cells lining the artery wall, where they become trapped, forming fatty plaques called atheroma

Lack of Antioxidants

A lack of antioxidants is thought by many researchers to be an underlying cause of the hardening and furring of the arteries or atherosclerosis. Free radical damage has also been linked with various conditions, including:

  • Cataracts and macular degeneration
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Premature aging of the skin
  • Arthritis
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Impaired immunity
  • Low sperm count
  • Congenital birth defects
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Cancer

How Free Radicals are Produced

It is thought that the follow contribute to free radical production:

  • Smoking
  • Drink too much alcohol
  • Environmental chemical pollution
  • Sunburn
  • Taking antibiotics and paracetamol
  • Muscular contraction during exercise

We can't avoid producing a certain number of free radicals, but what we can do is to ensure that we take in via our food compounds that attack these free radicals. These compounds are the ANTIOXIDANTS. The help prevent oxidation by mopping up the pesky free electrons.

Brief List of Antioxidants

Vitamin C – one of the many antioxidants

Vitamin C: one of the many antioxidants

Below are examples of antioxidants for you to become familiar with:

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • Beta-carotene

Why are antioxidants good for you?

The molecules beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, have caused a stir in nutrition science. These and other antioxidants have the potential to keep us healthier and younger for longer. These exciting discoveries were made when scientists investigated the link between diet and the likelihood of developing certain diseases. One of the main results of the investigation showed that people who had a fruit and vegetable-rich diet were less likely to succumb to heart disease and cancer. It was found that this is due to the high level of antioxidants in the form of vitamins and minerals in fruit and vegetables.

free radicals and antioxidants

We need oxygen to survive because the body uses oxygen in the air to derive energy from food to fuel metabolic processes. The gas is moved around the body by hemoglobin in red blood cells, which contains iron. The hemoglobin molecule has an iron atom at the core of its porphyrin ring structure:

The porhyrin ring of the heme molecule contains iron

Porphyrin ring in Heme

Thanks to hemoglobin, blood can absorb 50 times more oxygen than water, and blood cells carry the gas to feed every one of our living cells. Unfortunately, there's a side-effect: the process of adding oxygen (just like adding free electrons) also creates harmful free radicals. These things are being produced inside you as you read this web page. 

Free Radicals Kill Harmful Bacteria

The thing is, the body needs free radicals to control harmful bacteria, but if too many free radicals for, things can get out of hand. Still, a few free radicals actually boost the immune system as some enzymes need them to work properly. For example, when you receive cut on the skin, there follows a certain amount of inflammation before the wound heals. The reddish swelling is due to the action of free radicals attacking bacteria via white blood cells. Problems only arise when the body produces too many free radicals and the process gets out of control. So, there's a fine balance, and antioxidants help to clean up any excess.

What do antioxidants do simple terms?

In simple terms, antioxidants neutralize and prevent free radicals from causing damage with in the body. These compounds, in simple terms, transform free radicals to less dangerous substances. Indeed, extensive studies have shown beyond doubt that low levels of the antioxidants called vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene, result in high levels of disease.

Is Vitamin D an antioxidant?

An often asked question is whether vitamin D is an antioxidant? Well, we know that vitamin C prevents scurvy, vitamin B1 prevents beriberi, and vitamin D prevents rickets. However, the jury is out as to whether vitamin D prevents or ameliorates oxidative stress biomarkers.

Antioxidants List

Below is a rang of antioxidants for you to peruse. Note: vitamins C and E are plenty in plant foods and are confirmed dietary antioxidants. Vitamin A becomes an antioxidant following metabolism of provitamin A beta-carotene and cryptoxanthin. Polyphenols in colorful, edible plants have known antioxidant activities but only in lab tests (in vitro); they are known to be rapidly metabolized and excreted in the body, which means their actual working in the body as antioxidants are poorly understood.

  • Vitamin A (retinol). It is also made by the body from beta-carotene.
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). It plays a part in several roles in the body.
  • Vitamin E (tocotrienol and tocopherol). Fat soluble and protects lipids.
  • Coenzyme Q10. Neutralizes free radicals.
  • Manganese. A part of the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase, which helps to mop up free radicals.
  • Iodine. An ancestral antioxidant.
  • Carotenoid terpenoids. yellow, orange, and red pigments produced by plants, bacteria, and fungi.
  • Polyphenols. Plant substances with antioxidant properties, but only in labs.
  • Flavonoids. Polyphenol antioxidants present in berries, coffee and tea.
  • Phenolic acids/esters. Hypothetical antioxidants studied only in the lab.
  • Curcumin. Bright yellow chemical of turmeric.
  • Bilirubin. Breakdown product of blood identified as a possible antioxidant.

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