How Antioxidants Work to Benefit the Body
You may have heard the term “antioxidants” used before in reference to physical health and a wholesome diet, but you may not know exactly what antioxidants are or how they work. The importance and value of antioxidants exists mainly in their relationship to unstable molecules called “free radicals.” These molecules are naturally produced in the human body during certain processes, such as exercise and when food is converted into usable energy. Free radicals are also produced during the body’s immune response to bacteria and viral infections, as well as after exposure to harmful chemicals like tobacco smoke and air pollutants. Free radicals are often considered to be harmful due to their lack of complete electron pairs, which causes them to rob electrons from other molecules. When this happens, the cells that are robbed from become damaged at the DNA level, and oxidative stress is put on the body. This is believed to promote the development of certain diseases (cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cataracts just to name a few).
The role of antioxidants in the prevention of oxidative stress is what makes them so desirable within a healthy diet. After encountering free radicals, the antioxidant compounds donate an electron to effectively neutralize the free radical molecule and prevent further damage to other cells, also known as “quenching.” Antioxidants naturally produced by the body, called endogenous antioxidants, include highly beneficial compounds such as alpha lipoic acid and glutathione. Critical antioxidants not produced by the body, like Vitamin C and E, are instead acquired from a well-balanced diet of fruits and vegetables. It is believed that the consumption of plant-based foods that are rich with phytochemicals help to maintain an optimal antioxidant balance.
Other powerful antioxidants include selenium, carotenoids, flavonoids, anthocyanins, quercetin, and catechins. These can be found in abundance within tomatoes, kale, cocoa, blueberries, apples, onions and green tea. Antioxidants can also be taken as dietary supplements, and aid in the prevention of cell degeneration brought on by advanced aging. As with any dietary supplement, it is important to incorporate antioxidants as recommended and never in excess; this can disrupt the body’s natural balance and potentially create adverse health reactions. While antioxidant supplements should not be substituted for a wholesome, balanced diet and lifestyle, they can help to offset the production of free radicals caused by exposure to harmful substances.