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How Do Antioxidants Work?


Read anything about nutrition for health and the word antioxidant inevitably comes up. But what is an antioxidant, really? Besides being the latest marketing buzzword, an antioxidant is a substance that protects the body cells from oxidative damage caused by free radicals (byproducts of the body’s normal chemical). Some antioxidants are made by the body and others are nutrients that must be obtained from food and absorbed by the body during digestion.

The best-known antioxidant nutrients include vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium (a mineral), and the carotenoids, the class of pigments that give many fruits and vegetables their red, orange and yellow hues. You may also have heard the term “phytochemicals,” which covers the compounds found in plants that are not classified as essential vitamins or minerals, but which have been shown in research to have health-promoting properties.

A lot of recent research has focused on what are known as “superfoods,” so-called because of their extremely high phytonutrient content, and “super antioxidants” which have especially powerful free radical-fighting properties and proven health enhancing benefits. Blueberries, açai and goji berries, and dark leafy greens like kale and broccoli top the list of high-antioxidant superfoods. Research has identified alpha lipoic acid, resveratrol, quercetin and CoQ10 as top super antioxidants, to name just a few.

So how do antioxidants fight free radicals?

According to Jean Carper, author of the best-selling book Stop Aging Now!, “Chemically, free radicals are simply molecules that are missing an electron and are desperately trying to snatch one from any other molecule. In so doing, they become molecular terrorists. They can be neutralized by antioxidants, compounds that give up one of their electrons, thus returning the free radicals to normal and stopping their cellular mayhem.

Since antioxidants can block, interrupt or repair the free radical rampages that promote aging, it makes sense to have a great deal of them around in your cells. The more that are present to protect cells’ DNA, within toxic limits, the less able the free radicals are to strike and impose their damage. And the less damage, the less likely the telltale signs of aging and ultimate breakdown of the body. What’s needed is a delicate balance—enough antioxidants to keep the free radicals under tight control so they cannot overrun the body, causing havoc.”

When a molecule is not stable (meaning it’s atoms have one or more unpaired electron), it becomes a free radical. These highly reactive molecules seek out atoms or molecules that they can steal from, thus creating more free radicals within the body. It is this rampant electron theft that damages cellular structures and eventually result in diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. When cells consume oxygen, free radicals are created as a byproduct of that process. This is all part of normal cellular respiration, and the body has its own systems for neutralizing most of these free radicals. In addition, free radicals can come from outside the body, from environmental toxins found in places like highly processed foods and polluted air and water.

Now, here’s the interesting thing.

Antioxidants do not actually attack free radicals. Instead, they hunt them down and then donate electrons to the free radicals, which in turn, neutralizes them. Different types of antioxidants perform specialized types of scavenging and free radical-neutralizing work within the body.

  • Vitamin E protects the free fatty acids in your bloodstream and cell structures from oxidation.
  • Vitamin C scavenges waterborne free radicals that attack fat-soluble compounds, which can cause a chain reaction that damages cell structures.
  • Selenium, when paired with glutathione peroxidase—an amino acid produced by the body—protects white blood cells from the adverse effects of free radicals.

And because their mechanisms of action are unique, antioxidants provide targeted benefits to different parts of the body.

  • Lycopene protects the heart and prostate.
  • Lutein protects the eyes from macular degeneration.
  • Resveratrol protects your heart, slows aging and protects against breast cancer.

Can you get too much of a good thing?

The answer is: It depends. If you’re talking about antioxidants such as fat-soluble vitamin E or minerals like selenium, then yes. Taking too much of these nutrients could have adverse effects since your body stores them in the fat tissue and they can build up. But when it comes to water-soluble nutrients such as vitamin C, our bodies tend to flush this from our system making it difficult to build up toxic levels of the nutrient.

The Anti-Aging Bottom Line:
Antioxidants play a fundamental role in preventing disease and helping you live a long, healthy life. It is more important now than ever before to include a variety of antioxidant-rich superfoods in your diet and to take supplemental antioxidants. Nowadays, you need all the protection you can get from the free radicals generated by the chemical toxins we are all exposed to as part of our daily lives. Stay tuned to for the latest research developments on antioxidants—definitely much more than just a buzzword!

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5 responses to “How Do Antioxidants Work?”

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