People often hear about antioxidants and how they help the body but more often than not, most individuals do not understand the role of antioxidants in the body and just know that it is something good for one’s health. Antioxidants play a role in slowing down the process of aging as well as in the prevention of disease. Keeping cells healthy can be as simple as including foods rich in antioxidants as part of one’s diet and staying away from harmful habits although multi vitamin tablets and supplements can also provide the body with essential nutrients.
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are compounds that counter the effects of oxidation in tissues. These substances are believed to play a major role in preventing chronic and degenerative health conditions including cancer, arthritis, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Antioxidants are also believed to slow down the process of aging. Antioxidants can be in the form of vitamins and minerals that provide nutrients to the body and in the form of enzymes in the body that assist in different chemical processes.
Antioxidants are found in different foods and multi vitamin supplements. Certain vitamins act as antioxidants in the body like vitamin E and C as well as minerals like selenium. Bioavailability of antioxidants in food is believed to be better compared to synthetic forms in multi vitamins and supplements.
Oxidation and Free Radicals
Oxidation is a normal process in the body that results in a by-product called free radicals. Free radicals come in different forms but ones containing oxygen called reactive oxygen species are considered to be the most harmful to the body. Free radicals have unpaired electrons and scavenge the body to either donate or steal one in order to gain stability and this can cause damage to cell structure and DNA.
Free radicals are normally produced during metabolism and aerobic respiration. The immune system can also produce these as part of the body’s defense against bacteria and viruses. Aside from free radicals present in the body, there are also free radicals found in the external environment. Free radicals from the environment can come from pollution, smoking, and exposure to the sun.
Antioxidants and Free Radicals
Under normal conditions, the body can take care of free radicals easily enough. However, if there are few antioxidants in the body or the number of free radicals circulating in the body becomes excessive, damage to cells can occur. Damage from free radicals also accumulates with age, resulting in more pronounced effects as a person ages in the form of chronic diseases.
Once a free radical attacks a stable molecule, it sets off a chain reaction within a cell that can cause damage and even cell death. Antioxidants stop a chain reaction from occurring by donating their own electrons to the free radical. Antioxidants do not become free radicals when they lose electrons as they are stable either way.
Antioxidants in Food
One of the best ways to supply the body with enough antioxidants to prevent free radical damage is by eating foods rich in antioxidants. Vitamins C, E, and beta carotene as well as selenium, aside from their individual nutritional properties, are also excellent antioxidants. Green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, strawberries, and tomatoes are good sources of vitamin C while vitamin E is found in abundance in almonds, walnuts, vegetable oils, liver, wheat germ, and avocadoes. Mangoes, papaya, pumpkin, squash, and sweet potatoes are good sources of beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. Selenium is an essential mineral present in brown rice, beef, poultry, pork, seafood, and whole grains that has potent antioxidant effects especially when combined with vitamin E.
There are no definite guidelines when it comes to the amount of antioxidants to be consumed daily but the American Heart Association recommends intake of different foods from the basic food groups to ensure optimal nutrition. Excessive amounts of antioxidants can also have negative effects on the body such as diarrhea and toxic reactions and there are no studies to confirm that high amounts of antioxidants can prevent chronic health conditions.