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What Are Antioxidants & Why They Are So Important

December 17, 2010

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apples, pears and grapes, fruit filled with antioxidants

Antioxidants are all the rage now a days. With the increased amount of knowledge, information and data available about antioxidants, the public is becoming more aware of why we need to include antioxidants in our diets. Our bodies are made up of thousands of unique combinations of substances and chemicals most of which have been identified through medical science. However, understanding what these chemicals do in our bodies is a different story completely. The term antioxidant was originally used for a chemical that prevented the consumption of oxygen. Now it is more commonly known as a chemical that reduces the rate of oxidation reactions.

Antioxidants have been around for millions of years originally adapted from marine life and plants. Now we know that antioxidants are widely available in food sources such as fruits, vegetables, meats, grains and are also made within the human body. Oxygen is one of the valuable substances that are necessary for sustaining life. However, oxygen is also a highly reactive substance that can cause damage to living organisms through production of reactive oxygen species. When a chemical reacts with an oxidizing agent through the transfer of electrons oxidation occurs. When oxidation occurs, free radicals are produced also known as reactive oxygen species. Free radicals cause damage to the DNA, proteins and lipids of the cells through mutation. This damage can cause premature aging, heart disease, cancer, atherosclerosis and many other neurodegenerative and metabolic diseases.  In spite of this, reactive oxygen species have normal functions within the body such as redox signaling. The objective is to keep reactive oxygen species busy or functioning appropriately so they don’t get out of line and try to damage the internal structure of our cells. Therefore, antioxidants can stop, remove, and reverse the effects of free radicals in the body. However, it is not their job to entirely remove them from our system, but to stop formation of new or overproduction of free radicals, and remove them before they do any damage to the body.

            Antioxidants are vital to prevent chemical damage to cellular components. They prevent cancer, heart disease, coronary artery disease, and treat strokes and neurodegenerative diseases. Antioxidant consumption can slow down the natural aging process and decrease mortality. Antioxidants are essential for healthy living and can improve and extend your life. Antioxidants are available through your diet or in the form of dietary supplements.  Antioxidants can inhibit oxidation reactions because they are oxidized themselves. Antioxidants are reducing agents such as thiols, ascorbic acid and polyphenols. They reduce the presence or formation of free radicals and reactive oxygen species.

             When antioxidant levels are reduced in the body such as in a calorie restrictive diet, oxidative stress occurs. Oxidative stress can damage or even kill cells. Damage from oxidative stress leads to disease like in the case of LDL cholesterol, which becomes oxidized causing inflammation and plaque formation, which leads to atherogenesis, atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.  If free radicals damage DNA it can cause mutations, which can lead to cancer. Damage to proteins can cause enzyme inhibition, denaturation and protein degradation. Continued long-term exposure of oxidative stress in the body contributes to the development of several diseases such as Alzheimers, Parkinsons, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, neurodegeneration, cardiovascular disease, and atherosclerosis.

Antioxidants are abundant in the food that we eat and some can be produced by the body. By including fruits and vegetables in our diets you can reduce the damage to your cells from free radicals. Antioxidants can prevent disease, treat diseases that are present, and extend and improve life. Antioxidants work synergistically with enzymes in the body and are interdependent on one another. Antioxidants ability to protect the body is based upon the levels of concentration, its reactivity toward free radicals and reactive oxygen species, and the status of other antioxidants with which it interacts. Therefore making sure the body maintains suitable levels of antioxidants will keep your body young and free from disease. Common antioxidants include uric acid, vitamin A, C, & E, glutathione, and melatonin.