Antioxidants and free radicals are prominent buzzwords in the world of nutrition. But what is actually going on within the struggle between free radicals and antioxidants in your body? Here’s a brief crash course that could help you understand why eating antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables is important.
Oxidation is a natural process that occurs within the cells of all living things. It turns the flesh of an apple brown, rots meat and ultimately ages your body. Oxygen is a standard byproduct of cellular metabolism. Your body metabolizes oxygen very efficiently, but one or two percent of cells get damaged in the process and turn into free radicals.
What is a free radical?
Understanding free radicals involves some elementary chemistry. You probably know atoms consist of a neutrons, protons and electrons. The number of positively charged protons in the atom’s nucleus determines the number of negatively charged electrons surrounding the atom. Atoms seek to become stable by having an equal number of protons and electrons. They do this by either sharing electrons with other atoms, or stealing them.
An free oxygen atom’s protons outnumber its electrons by two. Seeking stability, it will do whatever it can to acquire those two electrons. This makes an oxygen atom a highly reactive free radical that will attack the nearest stable molecule to steal its electron. When the “attacked” molecule loses its electron, it becomes a free radical itself, initiating a cascade that disrupts a living cell.
Free radicals are implicated in a number of diseases and conditions that become more common with age, including dementia, cancer and heart disease.
Antioxidants to the rescue
Antioxidants such as beta carotene and vitamins C and E are molecules that neutralize the destructive cascade of oxidation by donating one of their electrons to a free radical. This stabilizes the reactive atoms and helps prevent the cell and tissue damage that leads to disease. The antioxidants themselves don’t become free radicals because they have the unique ability to remain stable in either form.
That’s why you see antioxidants hyped in everything from dietary supplements to skin cream. The theory, which isn’t supported by science, goes that because free radicals cause aging and disease, you will live longer and healthier by making them disappear with huge amounts of antioxidants.
Healthy diet vs. supplements
Because free radicals are a natural byproduct of numerous bodily functions–even breathing—it’s impossible to eliminate them altogether. More isn’t necessarily better. The long-term effect of large doses of antioxidants hasn’t been proven. Plus, some studies suggest that taking a lot of antioxidant supplements could damage your body’s natural defense mechanisms for dealing with free radicals.
The thousands of different antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes power those mechanisms. Barring some scientific miracle, it’s foolish to believe you can take a pill that eliminates free radicals. But you can limit their damage the old-fashioned way, with regular exercise, no cigarettes and a healthy diet.