Most of us have already heard that antioxidants are good for our health, that they can help combat signs of aging, and that they can be found in green tea. But beyond these facts, we’re still left wondering what exactly they are and what exactly they do inside our bodies.
First, what are they?
Antioxidants are specific vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that have the ability to combat damages from free radicals. More on that later.
Basically, foods and drinks with vitamins like E, C, and A, minerals like copper, selenium, and zinc, and phytochemicals such as lycopene (1), have free-radical-fighters (i.e. antioxidants) in them. Keep in mind that this is just a short list of examples. There are a lot more sources of antioxidants, and each vary on the amount of antioxidants they possess.
What do antioxidants do in the body?
In short, antioxidants are called “anti” oxidants because they can help protect our body’s cells from damages caused by oxidative stress. Oxidative stress results from the overabundance of free radicals in the body.
Free radicals are formed when oxygen molecules split into atoms with an uneven number of electrons. The unevenly paired electrons (known as free radicals) need to be in pairs, so they steal other electrons from other molecules to become a pair. Interestingly, free radicals are naturally and continually forming in our bodies. They are actually necessary intermediaries to carry out certain chemical reactions (2). In fact, they can even help immune cells fight infections (3). So, on the one hand, we need them.
However, too many of them can wreak havoc. The process of unevenly paired electrons taking electrons from other molecules to become even leaves those other molecules uneven as well. This leads to a series of chemical chain reactions that can either be good or bad. When it’s bad, it can damage proteins, cells, and DNA (4).
So what does the body do to protect itself from potential damages?
Well, it so happens that antioxidants are also part of our body’s normal function. Our bodies actually generate antioxidants (glutathione) on its own to help balance free radicals. Antioxidants give free radicals an electron to neutralize them, or even them out (5); stabilizing the oxidative process.
Diets high in fruits, vegetables, and antioxidant-rich minerals should naturally provide the body with a sufficient amount of antioxidants. Meanwhile, a person’s lifestyle and environment (such as smoking, stress, exposure to toxins, air pollution, etc.) can lead to the production of free radicals and oxidative stress (5), which can have an adverse effect. So our best bet when it comes to antioxidants comes from knowing more about the science behind them. It’s all about maintaining a healthy balance of antioxidants and free radicals through smart food and lifestyle choices.