Free radicals and antioxidants have become household words, though not many understand exactly what these words mean or how they are affected by them. Many have heard that antioxidants can protect the human body from free radical damage, which may prevent certain forms of disease from occurring. How this works, and exactly what to do to get the needed protection, are not as clear.
Damaging Effects of Free Radicals
Basically put, free radicals are cells with an uneven amount of electrons. Because of their unstable construction, free radicals react quickly with other cells, stealing their electrons and thus creating new free radical cells in turn. This domino effect results in rapid cell death and can lead to certain illnesses, cardiovascular disease and cancer among them.
Some free radicals occur naturally in the human body as a by-product of metabolism. Even the body’s immune system can produce them to neutralize viruses or bacteria in some cases. These free radicals, created for a specific purpose, rarely turn on the body if being used properly. It’s when environmental factors like pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and herbicides are introduced that free radical production swings out of control. As the body ages, these free radicals accumulate.
Protective Qualities of Antioxidants
Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals by donating one of their electrons and ending the cycle. They don’t become free radicals in turn because they can be stable in either form (Health). When introduced into the human body, they serve as a patrol, preventing cell and tissue damage by eliminating free radicals. Many antioxidants occur naturally in fruits and vegetables and, through proper diet, can be easily absorbed into the body. Some of these antioxidants include:
- Vitamin E: The most abundant fat-soluble antioxidant (Health), it is effective at breaking apart chains of free radicals and protecting the body from oxidation. It can be found in nuts, seeds, vegetable and fish oils, whole grains (especially wheat germ, fortified cereals, and apricots (Rice). “Current recommended daily allowance is 15 IU per day for men and 12 IU per day for women” (Rice).
- Vitamin C: This water-soluble antioxidant (asorbic acid) acts primarily in cellular fluid, combatting free radicals formed by pollution and cigarette smoke (Health). It also helps to restore Vitamin E to its regular form and support it in its defenses. It is present in citrus fruit and juices, green peppers, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, kale, cantaloup, kiwi, and strawberries (Rice). Doctors recommend 60 mg per day.
- Beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A (retinol) is present in liver, egg yolk, milk, butter, spinach, carrots, squash, broccoli, yams, tomato, cantaloupe, peaches, and grains (Rice). The body converts beta-carotene to vitamin A in the system so there is no set requirement for how much should be introduced to the system.
Getting Your Antioxidants
Taking supplemental antioxidants is a largely disputed area of science. It’s unclear what an overdose of antioxidants will do to the human body. Studies have shown that the best way to introduce antioxidants to the system is through the daily diet, by adding five to eight servings of fruit and vegetables per day. Some have speculated that “other chemicals and substances found in natural sources of antioxidants may also be responsible for the beneficial effects” (Health), so stick with nature for the best results.
- “Antioxidants and Free Radicals.” Rice University.
- “Understanding Free Radicals and Antioxidants.” Health Check Systems.