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Antioxidants are molecules that help prevent the oxidation of other molecules. But what is oxidation? Oxidation is the process by which something reacts with oxygen. Now of course, oxygen is vital for life, however, it also plays role in the slow decline of our bodies, through the process of oxidation, also known as oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress contributes to ageing, can convert healthy cells into cancerous ones, promote inflammation, elevate blood pressure and harden arteries.
The oxygen (O2) that we breathe is made up of two oxygen molecules, which once they enter our body lose an electron, turning into a compound known as superoxide. Superoxide is a highly-reactive, free radical which then begins a process of stealing electrons from other molecules within your body.
The body produces free radicals as part of its normal everyday function. They can be produced when you exercise, in response to inflammation and environmental toxins, when the body is exposed to sunlight and through many other everyday processes.
Essentially, free radicals are molecules missing electrons, which makes the molecule very reactive and “aggressive”.
Free radicals seek to steal electrons from many of the molecules, compounds, proteins in your body and can also result in damage to your DNA and other cell structures. Yes, damage to your very DNA.
But it gets worse.
Free radicals can have a snowballing effect in which molecule after molecule steals from its neighbour, each one becoming a new free radical once it's been electron-robbed, leaving a trail of biological carnage.
If your body does not get adequate protection, free radicals can become rampant, causing your cells to perform poorly. This can lead to tissue degradation and put you at risk of diseases.
This is where antioxidants come in.
Antioxidants are electron donors, as they essentially have a spare electron. They can break the free radical chain reaction by sacrificing their own electrons to feed free radicals, but without turning into free radicals themselves.
Antioxidants are nature's way of providing your cells with adequate defence against attack by reactive oxygen species (ROS). If you have these important micro-nutrients, your body will be able to resist some of the effects of ageing. If you don't have an adequate supply of antioxidants to help squelch free radicals, then you can be at risk of oxidative stress, which leads to accelerated tissue and organ damage.
There are numerous antioxidants known today, and these can naturally occur in the body or be found in whole and organic foods or high-quality antioxidant supplements.
There are many ways to classify antioxidants, however, the most appropriate for people looking to increase their intake is whether it is Fat Soluble (Hydrophobic) or Water Soluble (Hydrophilic)
It is important to get a wide variety of each, through as many different sources as possible, as some antioxidants are restricted to certain areas of the body, for example lutein is found primarily in the eyes and skin.
Dr Richard Passwater summarises,