What are free radicals? Where do they come from? Why are they damaging to the human body? And how does antioxidant nutrients help protect the body against free radical damage? We’ll attempt to answer these questions and help you understand why eating anti-oxidant rich foods can benefit your health. But first, a little background…
To understand the way that antioxidants and free radicals interact, you must first understand a little bit about cells and molecules. So here's a (very) brief refresher course in Biology/Chemistry : The human body is composed of many different types of cells. Cells are composed of many different types of molecules. Molecules consist of one or more atoms of elements joined by chemical bonds.
As you probably remember from your school days, atoms consist of a nucleus, neutrons, protons, electrons, etc. Electrons are involved in chemical reactions and are the substance that bonds atoms together to form molecules. Electrons surround, or "orbit" an atom in one or more shells.
The most important structural feature of an atom for determining its chemical behavior is the number of electrons in its outer shell. A substance that has a full outer shell tends not to enter in chemical reactions and is basically stable.
A Free Radical is a cell that lost an electron. Let’s try to make this as simple as possible. A Free Radical is a cell that lost an electron. Because they have one or more unpaired electrons, free radicals are highly unstable. And what happens when a cell loses an electron is that it starts to break down tissue in that area and it starts a cascading effect, a sort of domino effect, where 1 cell that lost an electron will affect the next cell next to it and the next cell next to it and it starts to break down a lot of the surrounding tissue.
The Free Radicals basically scavenge your body to grab or donate electrons, thereby damaging cells, proteins, and DNA (genetic material). The same oxidative process also causes oils to become rancid, peeled apples to turn brown, and iron to rust.
Now, we don’t have to be sick to have Free Radicals in our body. As a matter of fact, Free Radicals are a normal by-product of metabolism, so as you are sitting or standing where you are right now, and breathing in and out, you are producing Free Radicals. Of course they get extreme in times of stress and so on. Not only does your body produce them, but there are also many external sources such as air pollution, alcohol, pesticides, tobacco smoke, drugs, and even fried foods.
Antioxidants: fight hard to help prevent free radicals from doing their damage.
What Are Antioxidants?As the name implies, antioxidants are substances that are capable of counteracting the damaging, but normal, effects of this process of oxidation in animal tissue. Antioxidants are nutrients (vitamins and minerals) as well as enzymes (proteins in your body that assist in chemical reactions). They are believed to play a role in preventing the development of such chronic diseases as cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, Rheumatoid arthritis, etc.
Why do we want AntiOxidants and what can they do to stop the excess breakdown of tissue, help retard aging, and help heal disease? Well, when we introduce an AntiOxidants into our body it donates an electron. Remember I said Free Radicals loses electrons. Well, AntiOxidants donate electrons to complete the cell. So you won’t have that large number of Free Radicals running amuck in your body. You're not going to have all that breakdown of tissue, that cascading/domino effect of unhealthy cells.
So basically AntiOxidants neutralize Free Radicals.Antioxidants block the process of oxidation by neutralizing free radicals. In doing so, the antioxidants themselves become oxidized. That is why there is a constant need to replenish our antioxidant resources.
When we think about antioxidants we think about Free Radicals and Inflammation. The 2 things that AntiOxidants really address are Free Radicals and Inflammation. We are now hearing in the news that inflammation is behind a lot of our major diseases, its behind a lot of our cardiovascular (heart related) diseases, cancer, Alzheimer’s, chronic pain, arthritis, etc….. Inflammation is the common denominator. So we really want to make sure we are getting a good amount of AntiOxidants into our body.
Now, inflammation isn’t all bad. We do get inflammation from time to time, its part of our immune system and is necessary in the healing process. What we don’t want is chronic, on-going inflammation.
Now, how is it that we get into states of chronic inflammation? Well, think of it simply, when we introduce things into the body that the body does not like, that the body might see as an allergen or a toxic substance, its going to go into an immune response and consequently inflammation happens. So for people who are eating really bad food that the body may see as sort of like a foreign invader, then they are going to be living in chronic states of inflammation.
So just eliminating some toxic type food and taking in more whole foods is a good way of addressing that, and will go a long way in enhancing good health in your body.
So to summarize, in a nutshell:
Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms with an odd (unpaired) number of electrons in its outer ring, and can be formed when oxygen interacts with certain molecules. Once formed, these highly reactive radicals can start a chain reaction, like dominoes. Their chief danger comes from the damage they can do when they react with important cellular components such as DNA, or the cell membrane. Cells may function poorly or die if this occurs. To prevent free radical damage the body has a defense system of antioxidants.
Antioxidants are molecules which can safely interact with free radicals and terminate the chain reaction before vital molecules are damaged. Although there are several substances within the body that scavenge free radicals, the principal micro-nutrient (vitamin) antioxidants are vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C, and selenium. The body cannot manufacture these micro-nutrients, so they must be supplied in the diet.
Antioxidants from our diet appear to be of great importance in controlling damage by free radicals. But before you go out and stock your pantry with mega-doses of vitamins; the best way to ensure adequate intake of antioxidant nutrients is through a balanced diet. Antioxidants are abundant in fruits and vegetables, as well as in other foods including nuts, grains and some meats, poultry and fish.
Our body requires nutrition. finding the right foods to eat is NOT always that simple. Most of the food offered to us in grocery stores is so highly processed, it's lost most of its goodness. Things like enzymes, amino acids and vitaminscannot withstand processing from high heat and pasteurization.
What's more, commercial fruits and vegetables are grown mostly in soil nearly void of the trace minerals our bodies absolutely must have to remain strong.
Unlike our grandparents who ate wholesome nutritious food, our generation fills it belly on junk food, and those ready-to-eat processed meals, not fit for consumption.
If we are to live our lives free of disease we need to SUPPLEMENT our diet with nutritional products. We either pay attention to our diet or face the consequences.
Now there are wonderful whole food drinks and products that are high in AntiOxidants. I learned that nutritional drinks offer a 98% absorption rate. They get into the blood stream and into the cells within a matter of minutes.
We must make a deliberate plan to get large amounts of antioxidants into our body every day. Not just once in a while, not once a week, but every single day of our lives.
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