You hear a lot these days about antioxidants and their significant health benefits, but you may be wondering, "What do antioxidants do?" or “How do antioxidants work?”
Once the answers to those questions are revealed, you'll understand how important antioxidants are to staying young and disease-free.
What are antioxidants? The term antioxidants refers to the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals (plant chemicals) and other natural compounds that protect your body from destructive molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are highly-reactive particles, a normal byproduct of your metabolism. More about them in a minute.
How do antioxidants work in plants? Plants, including fruits and vegetables, use these phytochemicals to protect themselves against the stress caused by intense sunlight and harsh growing conditions. When you eat these foods, you get the same antioxidant protection for yourself.
Some foods, such as onions, garlic and red wine, contain dozens of different phytonutrients (the source of antioxidants) all on their own. This reinforces the idea that antioxidants are designed by nature to work together. Research studies have backed this up, showing that antioxidants are much more powerful when they are consumed in combinations.
See What are Antioxidants? for more details.
What are free radicals? When you examine your body all the way down to the cellular level, you'll find atoms with electrons circling around a nucleus, or center. Healthy atoms always have electrons in pairs, each one holding either a positive or negative charge. A free radical is an atom or molecule that has become unstable due to the loss of one or more of its paired electrons.
When one of these particles comes in contact with a stable atom, it will steal the electron it needs from the stable atom, or deposit its extra electron into the stable atom. This starts a domino-effect of free radical reactions, unless the free radicals can be neutralized by restoring the electron pairs.
This process, called cell oxidation, happens more often than you could imagine — about 10,000 times every day, for each of the trillions of cells in your body.
As I mentioned above, free radicals are normally created as a byproduct of your metabolism, and are not necessarily harmful. However, when you're not getting enough antioxidants in your diet, free radicals go unchecked and damage too many cells in your body, leading to premature aging and degenerative diseases.
In addition to normal free radical production, you are being exposed to any number of external stress factors that create excess free radicals. These stress factors include processed food, environmental toxins, frequent strenuous exercise, inflammation and a host of others. Every type of stress you experience, physical or mental, adds to the creation of free radicals in your system.
Longevity experts agree that the overproduction of free radicals in our bodies is one of the leading causes of aging and the degenerative diseases that go with it. Indeed, the growing rate of these diseases (cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, arthritis, etc.) in our culture today, points to a virtual epidemic of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a name used to describe the net result of excessive free radical reaction.
Oxidative stress in your body is the same process as an banana rotting or metal rusting, except it's happening from the inside out. Antioxidants are responsible for preventing this type of oxidative stress and the many health problems associated with aging.
How do antioxidants work to neutralize free radicals? So how do you turn a free radical back into a harmless cell? You give it the extra electron it wants. And where do you get your supply of extra electrons? You guessed it — from antioxidants! Antioxidants have the ability to surrender electrons to these particles without adding to the chain reaction.
As you will discover throughout this website, there are several distinct families of antioxidants, including the network antioxidants, bioflavonoids, anthocyanins and carotenoids, and within each of those families, many more individual ones. Each antioxidant has their own distinct role, and you want to get all the different types.
Antioxidants are present in every cell in every organ of your body. Because of this, antioxidant foods and supplements can address almost any health issue there is. Different antioxidants also work in different parts of the cell, and in different organs. For this reason, you can't say that any one antioxidant is significantly more important than any other one — you need them all.
If you were building your dream house, you'd want a team of expert carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, electricians, landscapers, etc. to do the job. Each person would have their specific job to do, and you'd need all the different specialists to complete the job.
The antioxidants work the same way — you get better results with small amounts of all the antioxidants than you would get using very large amounts of just one. Relying on just one particular antioxidant supplement would be like building your house by yourself. You couldn't possibly have the experience and expertise to do all the jobs as well as a team of specialists could — or as efficiently. That's why you want to get all the members of the antioxidant family in your diet.
Each antioxidant has its own job. Like the home builders, each member of the antioxidant family have its own specialty. Because each cell in your body has a fat-based membrane (outer shell) and a water-based nucleus (center), it needs different antioxidants for each area.
For example, fat-soluble vitamin E and coenzyme Q-10 protect the fatty cell membrane and the mitochondria, while water-based vitamin C and glutathione protect the nucleus. Lipoic acid and astaxanthin are antioxidants that have the unique ability to go anywhere. Members of this antioxidant network rescue one another when they become oxidized by free radicals.
An Observation on Nutritional Studies. Whenever you hear about a study on any particular antioxidant (or any other single nutrient, for that matter), keep this principal in mind: antioxidants aren't as effective working on their own; they need the partnership of their fellow antioxidants. Invariably, these studies try to isolate a single nutrient in order to identify whether it has any specific benefits for a specific health condition.
Keeping in mind the analogy of the home builders, you can understand the fallacy behind such thinking. When you hear about these studies, take their conclusions with a grain of salt.
Refer to my page on Antioxidant Research for more information on the reliability of nutritional studies.
You are probably familiar with the fact that your genes are responsible for passing on traits from one generation to the next.
However, genes are merely blueprints, and these blueprints are activated and controlled by their environment. This includes diet, toxic exposures, thoughts, emotions, and more. These factors can create more than 30,000 different variations from each gene blueprint.
How do antioxidants work like an internal repair mechanism? The antioxidant network is your body's built-in intelligence. It constantly monitors the health of each of the trillions of cells in your body. Whenever a problem is detected, antioxidants will turn on the appropriate gene, which, in turn, activates the cells that it needs to solve the problem.
For example, antioxidants direct your genes to alert your immune system when there are invading viruses present. The immune system then creates more white blood cells to kill the viruses. But the process begins with your antioxidant network.
How do antioxidants work to help you overcome "bad" genes? You may think that if you inherited a gene that predisposes you to developing cancer, heart disease or any number of other diseases, it means that you will probably get that disease. This is not necessarily the case.
All of us carry some defective or potentially harmful genes, but they have to be activated before they can do damage. One way that bad genes could get activated is if your DNA becomes damaged by free radicals.
Because antioxidants can help regulate dangerous genes, it opens up the possibility to treat diseases at their root cause, by suppressing bad genes before they can do harm, using antioxidants — the ultimate preventive medicine.
You may have heard about unfortunate cases where women actually have their healthy breasts removed because they discovered the presence of one of these bad genes that are known to indicate a high risk of breast cancer. Conventional medicine doesn't have any way of offering protection against this, but a diet high in antioxidants shown to prevent cancer would certainly seem like a better alternative!
1. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals.
As we have seen, antioxidants work to prevent free radical reactions and oxidative stress to your body. Antioxidants have the ability to surrender electrons to free radicals before they can do damage.
2. Antioxidants work throughout the body.
We have seen that antioxidants work everywhere in your body — in every cell, in every organ. We also know that different antioxidants work in different parts of each cell.
3. Antioxidants work as a team.
We know that antioxidants work better in combinations. One antioxidant will cover the back of another antioxidant, replenishing it or even substituting for it if your cells don't have enough of that antioxidant. Although they all work together, each one does have its own distinct function.
4. Antioxidants help your genes.
And finally, antioxidants improve your genes' ability to fight disease and keep you healthy. Antioxidants also suppress bad genes before they can do harm.
To learn more about the basics on antioxidants, try these pages:
Protect the Future of Your Food Supply