Antioxidants as free radicals
Antioxidants simply put, are any molecule that is able to prevent the oxidization of another molecule.
Oxidization is a process by which electrons are transferred between molecules, often producing chemicals known as free radicals as a by-product of the reaction.
It is these free radicals which make antioxidants so important in our daily diets.
Free radicals can bind to other cells and create a chain reaction that can damage and kill many cells.
This damage will have different effects depending on what cells are involved and where in the body, but as an example, free radicals binding to cholesterol molecules in the bloodstream can cause those molecules to become stuck against the wall of an artery.
Works well on heart related issues
The immune system recognizes that something is wrong and sends white blood cells to deal with the problem, which they struggle to do, and you end up with a mass of dead calls lining the wall of the artery.
This mass of cells is called plaque, and it raises blood pressure while increasing the risk of blocked arteries causing sudden heart attacks and strokes.
Free radicals binding to other types of cells can cause new cells to regenerate defectively and spiral out of control – the early stages of cancer.
They help to prevent this by forcing the free radicals to oxidize them instead, precluding any further such reactions and preventing cellular damage.
Antioxidants can be divided into 2 groups
You probably know of many different types, but perhaps without realizing that they were categorized as such. Vitamin C is one, as are vitamins A and E.
They can be broadly split into two groups – fat soluble antioxidants and water soluble anti oxidants.
Fat soluble antioxidants
Fat soluble antioxidants tend to remain in and around cell membranes where they can protect the lipids there from oxidation.
Water soluble antioxidants
Water soluble antioxidants usually deal with free radicals in the blood and cytoplasm of cells.
They, as is often the case with vitamins and minerals, tend to work synergistically with one another.
That is to say that two or three antioxidants are often better than one, not due to volume but due to them complimenting one another in their actions.
Important to have antioxidants in our diet
Therefore it is a good idea to have a broad range of different antioxidant nutrients in your diet to make sure all bases are covered, so to speak.
They are frequently used to treat degenerative brain diseases, due to the brain being particularly vulnerable to the damage that free radicals can cause.
Examples of conditions commonly treated using antioxidant therapy are Parkinson´s disease and Alzheimer´s, as well as dementia.
Polyphenol antioxidants such as resveratrol have been shown in studies to be particularly effective at treating degenerative disorders of the brain, as well as decreasing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Some indications are that it they may also be able to slow or even reverse the onset of age-related macular degeneration. Further investigations are ongoing into this possibility.
One study reported a decrease in cancer rates of over 30% in men who took antioxidants regularly over a period of year, as opposed to men who did not.
This result, it has to be said, is not reproduced across the board, but the results are quite amazing nonetheless.
Traditionally we would have derived a healthy amount of antioxidants from our daily diets, especially in the form of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds and meat (especially animal organs).
However, contemporary diets and nutritional habits rely a lot on processed and snack foods with very little good nutritional value.
It is almost certain that our antioxidant intake from dietary sources is less than it would have been fifty years ago, and hence supplementation with antioxidants will likely be beneficial for a majority of the population.
Availability in the market and its sources
Antioxidants are commonly sold as nutritional supplements, as in the case of the ACES formulation (vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and the mineral Selenium), though it has to be said that if you take a daily multivitamin you will be getting a pretty hefty dose of antioxidants right there.
Green tea is also known to be a good source, as is ginseng.
Physical exertion greatly increases the rate at which the body burns fuel in order to produce energy, and therefore also greatly increases the rate at which potentially harmful oxidants, or free radicals, are produced.
Some indications are that supplementing with antioxidants before, during and after a workout can help minimize the unnecessary damage to cells and shorten recovery times after an intensive session.
Different results seem to be indicated for different atypes in this case, with some showing marked benefits and others very little if any benefit from supplementation during exercise, so more studies are probably needed before firm recommendations can be made in this regard.
Words of caution
It is not recommended to overdose on antioxidants in pursuit of increased benefits, as this can prove counterproductive.
As well as being oxidized by free radicals, antioxidants can also combine with essential minerals in the diet and prevent them from being absorbed, leading to mineral deficiency, and this causes healthy problems of its own, as some antioxidants rely on minerals to perform many of their functions in the body.
As usual with supplementation, you should consult your doctor before you decide on an antioxidant regime, and seek medical advice if you experience any adverse reactions as a result of taking them.
Having said this, they will provide a substantial overall benefit for the majority of people, and they are recommended as a daily supplement to help reduce the risk of developing serious conditions such as heart disease and cancer.