All foods that are rich in antioxidants are called ‘superfoods’ and are considered to be very healthy. Getting more antioxidants in your diet is also associated with preventing several chronic diseases.
How Antioxidants Neutralize Free Radicals?
Foods high in antioxidants are getting more popular every day—but do you understand what exactly their function is? Well, antioxidants are considered beneficial because they fight free radicals.
Let’s take a look at how antioxidants benefit us and if there are any problems associated with them.
What Are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are found in a variety of fruits like blueberries, cranberries, strawberries and other food items like dark chocolate, green tea and coffee.
They are produced by our body naturally and are also found in other plant and animal sources. Vitamin C, vitamin A and vitamin E are good examples of antioxidants and most berries and fruits are full of them.
Polyphenols derived from plants occur in brightly colored fruits and veggies and the selenium found in nuts or broccoli are also antioxidants.
Put simply, antioxidants are good at neutralizing the harmful molecules present in our cells. These harmful molecules could be a result of chemical reactions within the body or they can be absorbed from external sources like cigarette smoke.
Some studies have also found antioxidants to be promising in halting chronic diseases and managing symptoms like inflammation.
However, like most things, having excessive amounts of antioxidants in your diet can be harmful too. We need more research to understand the exact effects of antioxidants in your body. Thus, we cannot consume too much of them before understanding h0w they work.
What Are Free Radicals?
Free radicals are created in the body when our body converts food into energy. However, this is not the only source of free radicals—they are also absorbed from food or from the environment around you.
Sometimes direct contact with sunlight can also create free radicals in the skin or eyes. Once they are created or absorbed in the body, they start a chain reaction.
Cells start getting damaged or die off. They also cause oxidative stress which is responsible for about 200 diseases.
Since free radicals are formed in the body during essential life functions and are also absorbed from the external environment, you need a steady supply of antioxidants too. They are also formed in the body or absorbed through the food we eat.
There’s no way to escape free radicals, they are ever-present in our environment. Antioxidants fight them and restore balance to the body.
They are also necessary in some cases, for example, they are part of the immune response when our body is fighting off a virus and they are sometimes created during exercise to help our body receive the benefits of physical activity.
How Antioxidants Fight Free Radicals
Free radicals damage cells and impair their functions. They are created as a byproduct of biological processes and are then neutralized by antioxidants in the body to protect the cells.
Both free radicals and antioxidants serve different purposes and are necessary to the body. Maintaining a balance between them keeps the body healthy.
The problem with free radicals is that they have unpaired electrons. Electrons usually occur in pairs and aren’t too reactive. Free radicals have singular electrons which makes them very reactive.
They start attacking different parts of the cell and can kill cells too. Too many free radicals in the body will create oxidative stress, which leads to a number of harmful conditions. It also speeds up the effects of aging on the body.
Antioxidants fight free radicals by giving them an electron and making them less reactive or by breaking down the molecule itself so that it doesn’t cause harm to any healthy cells in the body.
Free radicals kickstart a chain reaction in our cells which can be very harmful. Antioxidants halt this chain reaction, preventing damage to healthy cells. They also promote a stronger immune system, which helps fight off infections.
This is why a constant supply of antioxidants is essential to the body. Without antioxidants, the free radicals would run rampant and cause eventual death.
However, this doesn’t mean that we overload our diet with antioxidants. We are yet to understand how they work and it is not advisable to include too much of them in our diet. A healthy balance between the two is a far safer and healthier alternative.
Sources Of Antioxidants
Since they are essential for survival, our bodies create antioxidants known as cellular antioxidant glutathione. In fact, almost all living things create antioxidants in their body.
Plants and animals are also affected by free radicals and the resultant oxidative stress, so they generate antioxidants to protect themselves. All foods derived from plants and animals will contain these antioxidants.
The antioxidants naturally produced in the body are not enough to combat the free radicals absolved from the environment. You need to consume foods rich in antioxidants to balance out the free radicals absorbed from external sources.
The bottom line is that if you don’t get enough of vitamin C and vitamin E in your diet, it will lead to death, no matter how healthy you are.
One of the reasons that a plant-based diet is considered healthy is that plants are generally high in antioxidants. All kinds of berries, coffee and green tea are good sources of antioxidants.
Some studies even suggest that coffee is the largest provider of antioxidants in most Western countries. This is because the average diet doesn’t have a lot of antioxidants.
They also contribute to the longevity of food items. Foods rich in antioxidants will last a lot longer. It increases the shelf life of foods—this is why a lot of packaged foods have added vitamin C. It has a preservative and keeps food fresh for a longer time.
Types of Antioxidants
There are 2 kinds of antioxidants—water soluble and fat soluble. Water-soluble antioxidants dissolve in water, so they are quickly absorbed by the body. They act in the liquid both inside and out of the cells. Vitamin C is a water-soluble antioxidant.
Fat-soluble antioxidants are absorbed by globules of fat that travel through the body and enter blood circulation. They take a lot longer to be absorbed by the body as they have to pass through the digestive tract first. They operate on the cell membranes.
Here are some important antioxidants:
- Vitamin E: It is a fat-soluble vitamin that protects the cell membrane from oxidative stress. It also promotes retinal, reproductive and neurological health.
- Vitamin C: It is water soluble. It neutralizes free radicals by donating an extra electron to the free radical. Research also shows that it regenerates other antioxidants in the body.
- Flavonoids: Flavonoids come from plant sources. They get oxidized by free radicals, leaving them less reactive. This prevents the cells from damage caused by free radicals.
- Selenium: Selenium is a trace element. It is needed by the body in a very specific quantity—an excess can be toxic and a deficiency can cause many serious conditions. Selenium deficiency also leads to oxidative stress.
It is important to understand that being an antioxidant is a function performed by different vitamins or elements. The term does not refer to any specific compound in the body, it is a term used to describe the function of certain compounds.
Do You Need Antioxidant Supplements?
Regular intake of antioxidants is indeed essential for our health and longevity. However, high concentrations of antioxidants can be harmful to our health.
If your diet has too many antioxidants, it will have the opposite effect. Instead of preventing or reducing oxidative stress, it will create and increase oxidative stress. This situation is called an ‘antioxidant paradox’.
Research also indicates that excessive consumption of this beneficial element could cause death. This is why most healthcare professionals will advise against taking antioxidant supplements.
A much safer and healthier alternative is to eat food rich in antioxidants. Some research shows that dietary methods are much better at reducing oxidative stress than supplements.
For example, a study compared the effects of drinking sugar water and drinking orange juice, each with equal amounts of vitamin C.
The results showed that the juice had stronger antioxidant properties. This also suggests that antioxidants work in synergy when absorbed through food.
If you have a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, you can rest assured that you will get your daily dose of antioxidants through food.
How Antioxidants Neutralize Free Radicals: Wrapping Up
Free radicals are naturally produced in the body and are also absorbed from the environment around us. They perform necessary functions in the body but can also be harmful to our cells.
They are kept in check by antioxidants, which neutralize them and protect the cells from damage. An excess of either element is harmful to our health. What we need is a healthy balance between the two.
This can be achieved by switching to a diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables. They contain the required amount of antioxidants to keep us healthy and promote better health and immunity.