What are Antioxidants and Free Radicals?
“Antioxidant” is a word that most of us are pretty familiar with, right? But what does it really mean? What are they, what do they do, and why do we care about getting them anyway? I’ve tried to explain all this in the most simple, basic way. (not because I think you’re simple or basic, but because I am). If it doesn’t make sense, pretend you never read it and promise you’ll still be my friend, okay?
Before we can talk about antioxidants, we must know a little bit about free radicals. Free radicals and antioxidants are bitter enemies. Free radicals are out for us, and antioxidants are out for them. Really, that’s what my college chemistry teacher taught me. I guess there’s a little more to it than that.
Free radicals are kind of wacky, because they are both necessary for life and thought to be at the root of many diseases and chronic conditions.
Why we love them:
- They are involved in cell signaling processes and the intracellular killing of bacteria
Why we hate them:
- When there’s a surplus of free radicals -more than the body needs- they start damaging or killing our good cells. This is thought to be the root of many cancers, diseases, and even the symptoms of aging.
What ARE they?
- This might not be what you get from an encyclopedia, but it’s the clearest explanation I can come up with for regular people like me (huh? regular?). People who studied science more diligently than I did might look down upon me, but this is how I gotta say it: Free radicals are unpaired electrons. Most electrons follow the buddy rule and always hold hands. But free radicals are damaged rule-breakers, not to mention that they are unstable and react quickly. Because they don’t have a buddy of their own, they try to steal everybody else’s. As you can imagine, this can cause problems.
- Let’s say we have an extra free radical running around in our skin (a disturbing thought, I know). This free radical is unemployed: the body doesn’t really need it. It’s extra. It’s goofing off because there’s not enough work around for all the free radicals. So, what does it do?! It steals an electron from the first stable, healthy, good molecule that it sees. This sets off a chain reaction, damaging the cells that are stolen from.
- When this happens excessively, the body suffers damage. When extra free radicals fraternize with skin cells, damage occurs to the skin. Those greedy thieving free radicals steal from the good skin cells, wreaking havoc as they go. Excess of free radicals can cause damage in any area of the body, and many scientists believe that it is the basis of many diseases.
Where do they come from?
Free radicals can be produced by or through or because of:
- Cigarette smoke
- Cooked Food
- Environmental Pollution
- Food Additives
- The body’s metabolism
- Exposure to microwaves
- More things that I can’t remember.
I admit, this list is kind of depressing. Some things on this list are even good! Like exercise (and don’t use this list as an excuse to stop exercising). Some are unavoidable! Like metabolism. The body needs some free radicals, but when we are exposed to so many ways of producing them, it’s easy to have too many. We can try to avoid the negative things on this list, but we might need a little more help than that…
Antioxidants and Enzymes:
Our bodies were created with mechanisms to fight off excess free radical activity. Yay! How encouraging. Thanks, God, for knowing that I would get sunburned and need to get rid of those extra free radicals.
- I’ll try to keep this pretty simple: antioxidants and enzymes in our bodies help reduce and repair damage from free radicals.
- Antioxidants sacrifice themselves for the sake of our cells. They willingly donate themselves to the ravaging free radicals that are looking for buddies to steal. Picture this: an extra free radical is running around looking for a buddy to steal. It sees an innocent, healthy cell and starts moving that way. BUT, the super-antioxidant is on watch for these extra free radicals and jumps in front of the innocent cell to save it’s life. …or something like that…
- Basically, the antioxidants keep the free radicals from damaging our cells by being available to bond to them instead.
Where do we get antioxidants:
Some antioxidants are produced in our bodies, and some can be obtained through foods and/or supplements. Keep in mind that you want a variety of antioxidants. To work to their full potential, you need all different kinds. This means that you should eat lots of different colors and types of fruits and veggies!
- Vitamin C: citrus fruits, green leafy vegetables, strawberries
- Vitamin E: nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, whole grains
- Grape Seed Extract
- Lignans: flaxseed, oatmeal, barley
- Vitamin A and Carotenoids: carrots, sweet potatoes, kale, etc.
- Selenium: fish, garlic
- Flavonoids: pomegranate, cranberries
(this is not an exhaustive list by any means)
Here are some books that I found to be very helpful when learning about what my body needs and how to get it!
- What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know about Nutritional Medicine May be Killing You by Ray D. Strand, MD (whoa, that was a mouthful)
- Toxic Relief by Don Colbert, MD