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How Antioxidants Work to Keep You Healthy: Truth Revealed

How Antioxidants Work
Oxidation is a natural process that may cause damage to living cells. Antioxidants are substances that are capable of fighting the adverse effects of oxidation. This article is a brief discussion about the importance of antioxidants and what they do to improve overall health.
Bidisha Mukherjee
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
We all know that each and every cell present in our body requires oxygen. Oxygen is reactive, and it undergoes chemical reactions to generate energy. With the process of oxidation that takes place in the cells, healthy cells can be damaged. Antioxidants are useful in helping combat the damage caused by oxidation. Here's more on the role of antioxidants and how they work.
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are substances that inhibit oxidation or reactions promoted by oxygen. They protect the cells from damage by free radicals. Vitamins C and E are antioxidant nutrients, and enzymes like beta carotene and selenium have antioxidant properties.
What Antioxidants Do
If you keep a slice of apple in open air, after some time you will find that the flesh of the apple has turned brown. This happens because of oxidation. If you apply some lemon juice on the slice and keep it in open air, the slice remains white. It is due to the effect of antioxidants present in lemon juice. The antioxidants present in our food do the same thing and protect our cells by neutralizing the free radicals.
What are Free Radicals?
We know that the cells in our body perform several functions. During the process of oxidation, free radicals (oxygen molecules that have lost electrons) are released. Due to the presence of unpaired electrons, they are unstable. They gain stability by absorbing an electron from a nearby molecule.
Every time an electron is released from or absorbed into a free radical, a new free radical is formed, and the process continues. In this way, a chain of radicals is formed. In this process they damage cells, proteins, and DNA, which may invite disease. Since oxidation is a natural and constant process, the body has its own defense mechanism for it. Hence this damage is tamed to a certain extent. However, the real problem arises when the production of free radicals goes beyond the limit of what the body can defend naturally.
How Antioxidants Work
As described above, antioxidants combat free radicals, and prevent the damage they cause to healthy cells. When the free radicals are multiplying rapidly, antioxidants stabilize the free radicals. This process is known as chain-breaking, and antioxidants like vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene play a vital role in this process.
Another process in which antioxidants work is known as prevention. The name is self-explanatory. In this, antioxidant enzymes like catalase, glutathione, etc., reduce the rate at which free radicals multiply. It means, they reduce the rate of chain initiation. They suppress or scavenge free radicals, or lower the rate at which the chain of free radicals is formed. Once the already formed free radicals are stabilized, antioxidants can stop the chain of oxidation.
The mechanism of each antioxidant is effective only on some specific types of free radicals. On other free radicals, the same antioxidant may not be able to have the intended effect.
What are the Sources of Antioxidants?
There are several thousand antioxidants found in various plant foods. Each of them has its own mechanism of functioning. Vitamins E and C, selenium, and beta-carotene are some of the most commonly known antioxidants. They are sometimes referred to as anti-aging antioxidants.
Intake of supplements is another way to replenish the antioxidants in our body. However, several studies have found that the supplements may not have a proper balance of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes unlike fruits or vegetables which have it. The best antioxidants are those found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Vegetables and fruits like beets, carrots, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, cherries, red grapes, and berries are a good source of antioxidants. Dried fruits, beans and eggs too, are known to have a good amount of antioxidants. Spices like cloves have antioxidant properties.
Apart from the anti-aging effects, antioxidants also play a vital role in preventing the risk of chronic ailments like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Thus, it is important to constantly replenish antioxidants so as to have a healthy body and a younger looking skin!