What Are Antioxidants?
You may have heard a lot about antioxidants, and may also be aware that they are extremely beneficial for health. However, not many people actually understand what antioxidants are or how they work. We hope to clarify some of the confusion around antioxidants in this article. So, what do antioxidants do to our body?
Oxidation and Free Radicals
To better understand antioxidants, it is helpful to first understand free radicals and oxidation. Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules with an uneven number of electrons. The uneven number allows them to easily react with other molecules. Free radicals can cause large chain chemical reactions in your body because they react so easily with other molecules. These reactions are called oxidation and can either be beneficial or harmful.
Essentially, oxidation is any chemical reaction that involves the moving of electrons. Specifically, it means the substance that gives away electrons is oxidized. Oxidation is a normal and necessary process that takes place in your body. However, oxidative stress occurs when there’s an imbalance between free radical activity and antioxidant activity. This can result in damaged cells and ultimately ill health.
Antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in your body. Antioxidants can donate an electron to a free radical without making themselves unstable. This causes the free radical to stabilize and become less reactive.
As oxidation is a process that is constantly occurring due to numerous chemical reactions in the body, antioxidants must also regularly work to keep free radicals in balance. When there is an imbalance between free radical activity and antioxidant activity it leads to oxidative stress.
When there are more free radicals present than can be kept in balance by antioxidants, the free radicals can start doing damage to fatty tissue, DNA, and proteins in your body. Proteins, lipids, and DNA make up a large part of your body, so that damage can lead to a vast number of diseases over time; including:
- inflammatory conditions
- atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the blood vessels
- heart disease
- high blood pressure, which is also known as hypertension
- neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
Oxidative stress also contributes to aging. Everyone produces some free radicals naturally in their body through processes like exercise or inflammation. This is normal and part of the body’s intricate system of keeping itself healthy. You may also be exposed to free radicals in the environment from sources such as:
- pesticides and cleaners
- cigarette smoke
- industrial chemicals
- A diet high in processed sugar, oxidized fats, and alcohol
Reducing and Managing Oxidative Stress
It’s impossible to completely avoid free radical exposure and oxidative stress. However, there are things you can do to minimize the effects of oxidative stress on your body. The main thing to do is to increase your levels of antioxidants and decrease your formation of free radicals.
One method of preventing oxidative stress is to ensure that you’re obtaining enough antioxidants in your diet. Your body has some of its own antioxidant defenses to keep free radicals in check. However, antioxidants are also found in food, especially in fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based, whole foods. Several vitamins, such as vitamins E and C, are effective antioxidants.
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is the best way to provide your body what it needs to produce antioxidants. Many herbs and supplements also contain antioxidants.
Free radicals and antioxidants are part of the body’s natural and healthy functioning. However, oxidative stress can occur when free radicals and antioxidants are out of balance. Oxidative stress can cause damage to many of the body’s tissues, which can lead to a number of diseases over time. While you can’t completely avoid exposure to free radicals, you can make lifestyle choices regarding diet, exercise, and environment that will help keep the body in balance, and prevent damage and disease.
The best way to reduce oxidative stress is to increase the amount of antioxidants in your diet from sources like fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods, and to decrease the formation of free radicals by avoiding exposure to pollution and leading a more healthy and balanced lifestyle.