“Antioxidants” is a term we see thrown around a lot, but do you really know what it means? Sure, we know that they’re good for us. But what do they even do? And what is an antioxidant, anyway?
What are free radicals?
Before we can talk about antioxidants, we need to talk about the culprit that makes them so important! Free radicals is the term given to an unstable molecule with one or more unpaired electrons. (That’s right, we’re talking chemistry!) In order to stabilize itself, the free radical will react with another compound and steal electrons…But, now that new compound is unstable and has become a free radical. It’s a domino effect!
Free radicals are generated from cigarette smoke, air pollution, UV radiation, and normal body processes. Yep, your body is generating them just from the chemical reactions going on – but it’s okay! That’s where antioxidants come in.
What are antioxidants?
While free radicals are searching for compounds to steal electrons from, antioxidants are the martyrs that are willing to donate their electrons. Antioxidants willingly give up an electron to stabilize the free radicals. Antioxidants are stable with or without that extra electron, so they stop the domino effect! They just become a slightly different compound, like ascorbic acid becoming dehydroascorbic acid. (If you’re chemistry savvy, dehydro means without hydrogen. Donating electrons is literally donating hydrogen atoms. It all adds up!)
So, why are free radicals so bad?
We want antioxidants to stop the domino effect of free radicals because free radicals are destructive. They attack polyunsaturated fatty acids, causing destruction to cell membranes and disturbing its ability to allow nutrients to pass through. They attack DNA, RNA, and proteins, which impairs the functions of cells.
This damage causes aging and disease progression, including inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
(Free radicals can be helpful in the destruction of viruses and bacteria introduced to our bodies, but for the most part, we don’t want (a lot of) them in our system!)
Where can I find antioxidants in my diet?
The great news is that antioxidants are abundant in a healthy diet! Vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals (chemicals in plants) all act as antioxidants, and sometimes have specialties!
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is especially known for protecting against certain cancers, including cancer in the esophagus. It protects the skin and blood from free radicals.
Vitamin E protects the lipids in the body, such as in the cell membranes. It is expected that Vitamin E helps to inhibit cancer by protecting DNA. It also prevents heart disease and hypertension by preventing fatty plaque from building up, a result of free radicals.
Beta-carotene is another antioxidant that protects cell membranes, and, by extension, our DNA.
Enzymes in our bodies also protect from free radicals, but the enzymes can’t function without the minerals selenium, copper, manganese, and zinc.
The best source of antioxidants is through food. While it is tempting to want to reach for a supplement in order to ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of each nutrient, the research doesn’t support the fact that supplements provide the same benefits as food. The highest source of these great nutrients are fruits and vegetables – just another reason to get enough of both!
So, reach for foods that are high in Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Beta-carotene, and the minerals listed above. Citrus fruits, melons, peppers, strawberries, carrots, brussels sprouts, asparagus, leafy greens, broccoli….Basically, if you’re getting lots of fruits and vegetables, you’re getting enough antioxidants to keep those free radicals under control!