Antioxidants are featured in magazines, on the Internet and on television. But what are they? What do they do? Why do we need them? Which ones should a person take, if any?
What is Oxidation?
First, we have to understand what oxidation and free radical damage means before we can appreciate the role anti-oxidants play. A growing body of research shows that oxidation and free radical damage to our tissues plays a major role in aging and inflammation leading to various illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders and cancer. It is vital, however, to understand that oxidation is not entirely evil.
Oxidative reactions are necessary within our bodies to fight off bacteria and other foreign invaders and are part of the natural inflammatory reaction secondary to injuries. For example, when you get a cut in your skin, it is oxidation that causes the old, damaged cells to die and new fresh cells to grow. Yet, in an uncontrolled situation, oxidation can cause damage to healthy cell membranes and other molecules, including those that make up the DNA of our genes.
What Does That Damage Mean for You?
It means that messaging systems won’t work as well (i.e., the cell-to-cell communication may not work very well and the cells involved may no longer “listen” to the rest of the body’s instructions). This can cause a cell to become cancerous.
It could mean that cell membranes are damaged to an extent that makes it easier for plaque to stick to the blood vessel wall.
It could also lead to something as simple as that stubborn cellulite and the breakdown of healthy collagen leading to wrinkles and those pesky dimples that start showing up as we age.
I am simplifying, but you get the picture, unhealthy molecules lead to unhealthy cells that develop into bigger and bigger problems.
When Does Oxidation Occur?
Oxidation occurs when a molecule become ‘unstable’ and, in turn, robs another of electrons in order to repair itself. Stable molecules usually have electrons in pairs of two. But exposure to pollution, cigarette smoke, excessive sun exposure, fried and barbecued food, and rancid fats and oils start a domino effect of electron stealing.
A great way to illustrate is using the example of Plinko, a game from the TV show: The Price is Right. As the chip, or electron, slides down the board it bounces from peg to peg (the molecules) causing damage as it goes. Under controlled conditions, like how our cells make energy for us to work, this is a good thing. Electrons are moved from low-energy molecules to high-energy molecules to give us the energy to make the building blocks for our bodies. However, when this reaction is out of control, as it can get to be in cell membranes, there is no money at the bottom of the Plinko board. Instead, when the electron finally lands somewhere, damaged molecules (the pegs) are left in its wake.
Antioxidants Stop Oxidative Damage
Antioxidants are just what the name states. They act to stop oxidative damage, they effectively swoop in, find free radicals or damaged molecules and donate one of their electrons to plug the hole or pick up an extra electron to create stable molecules. Lucky for us, anti-oxidant molecules are stable with that extra electron and don’t need to steal electrons in order to be stable. They do, however, have to be recycled. This is why we need multiple sources and types of antioxidants. For example, vitamin C and vitamin E work together. The vitamin C stops a free radical in its tracks and then vitamin E recycles the vitamin C so it can do the job again. We see this relationship between antioxidants over and over in nature and throughout our bodies. This is why we should be getting our antioxidants from multiple sources.
Antioxidants in Our Food
The best sources of antioxidants are our food. A diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables including broccoli, kale, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, grapes and berries, especially blackberries and blueberries can supply many different types of antioxidants. These plants contain numerous flavonoids (Many of the flavonoids makeup the purple, blue, red, and yellow colors of the plant kingdom.), vitamins C and E, carotenoids, and selenium as well as other minerals that assist our antioxidant systems within the body. By eating a healthy diet we are consuming a variety of antioxidants, each of which acts in concert with the others.
Antioxidants in Supplements
If you are not always getting a good mix of fruits and vegetables (approximately 1/2 - 2/3 of your daily intake of food), then supplementation would be of benefit. When supplementing, consider a formula with a mix of various vitamin and mineral antioxidants, like A, C, E, carotenes, zinc and selenium.
I highly suggest including supplement formulas that have extracts of plant-based antioxidants such as green tea polyphenols, curcumin from turmeric (the Indian spice), grape seed and blueberry extracts, resveratrol (the beneficial antioxidant in red wine), and carotenes especially lutien and lycopene. Commonly, a good “greens powder” can provide much of these compounds.
Antioxidants Reduce the Inflammatory and Radical Breakdown of Our Bodies
Oxidation is a part of life, that can be very useful, but also damaging to the system as a whole. We would all benefit from adding more colorful foods to our plates at breakfast, lunch and dinner. In addition, we will find the use of supplemental resveratrol, curcumin and other antioxidant vitamins helpful in balancing out our diets and keeping us looking younger while reducing the inflammatory and “radical” breakdown of our bodies.
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About the Writer
As a naturopathic family practitioner, Dr. Monawar Fahoum's interests and specialties include homeopathy, diet and nutrition, botanical medicine and physical medicine (bodywork, adjustments, etc). She views healing as a dynamic process, unique to each person, with different treatments appropriate for different patients.
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