WHAT ARE ANTIOXIDANTS?
The use of antioxidant supplements has become very popular with consumers and health professionals. Research continues to find that many diseases are prevented or improved with the help of antioxidants, either from a healthful diet or from supplementation. The role of antioxidants is to prevent or control oxidation-hence the prefix anti (meaning "against"). Oxidation refers to the burning of oxygen as fuel in cells and the subsequent creation of substances known as free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that are very reactive and can damage cell DNA and various tissues.
Research has estimated that our cell DNA receives anywhere from 75,000 to 100,000 hits from free radicals every day. A free radical is missing an electron (a charged particle) and seeks out another molecule to pair up with, to gain an electron. This process actually creates more free radicals.
THE PROCESS OF OXIDATION
AN example of the oxidation process is an apple that has been sliced open. Within a small period of time, the flesh of the apple will turn a brownish color. This occurs because of oxygen interacting with the exposed apple. If you were to slice an apple and immediately squirt lemon juice on it, you would find that the brownish discoloration (oxidation) occurs over a much longer period of time. This protective effect occurs from the antioxidants vitamin C and bioflavonoids that exist in lemon juice. Within our bodies, similar reactions are occurring all the time. For example, antioxidants protect cholesterol from becoming oxidized. Researchers have found that cholesterol really becomes a villain only when it becomes oxidized and makes the process of atherosclerosis more likely. For people who consume a diet that's high in fruits and vegetables which is the richest source of antioxidants, the risk of cardiovascular disease is reduced. The same is true for a variety of cancers and other chronic diseases.
SOURCES OF FREE RADICALS
Besides free radicals that are produced in the life-giving process of energy production within our cells, we are also exposed to a variety of other factors that increase our free radical exposure. Ionizing radiation from the sun, X-rays, and other sources is common. Too much exposure may result in skin cancer, wrinkles, and cataracts. Also, industrial pollution contributes to the burden with toxic metals (arsenic, mercury, and others), smoke, and many other toxins. We then have to consider that many pharmaceutical medications create free radicals in users. In addition, people with chronic diseases such as diabetes generate more free radicals than a healthy individual does. Athletes produce a higher amount of free radicals as a by-product of exercise. Smoking, alcohol, fried foods, and high-fat diets all are notorious sources of toxic free radicals.
ANTIOXIDANT ENZYME SYSTEM
Our bodies have a built-in antioxidant system. This includes key enzymes such as catalase, superoxide dismutase (SOD), and glutathione peroxidase. Minerals such as selenium, manganese, zinc, and copper are required to keep these enzyme systems working efficiently.
Since the typical North American diet is deficient in antioxidant-rich plant foods, it is important for people to supplement additional antioxidant nutrients. Well-known antioxidants include vitamins A, C, and E, as well as selenium, glutathione, CoQ 10, and beta-carotene. Additional ones include lutein, lycopene, and other carotenoids. Grape seed extract, N-acetylcysteine, alpha lipoic acid, and to cotrienols are also great antioxidants. Phytonutrients, as found in herbs such as green tea, turmeric, ginkgo biloba, and milk thistle, have some of the most potent antioxidant activity ever discovered. Each of the antioxidants plays a key role in neutralizing free radicals and optimizing immune system function. These are just a few examples of the antioxidants that are available in foods and supplements.