To understand anti-oxidants, you'll need to understand free radicals, and how well you understand free radicals may depend upon how well you did in high school chemistry! Let's review.
- Your body is made of cells, cells are composed of molecules, and molecules consist of atoms chemically bonded together.
An atom prefers a state of stability, in which its outer shell is full with eight electrons. (Remember those electrons that orbit the nucleus?) When an atom has an outer shell with fewer than eight electrons, it will either lose or gain electrons to try to empty or fill its outer shell. The atom can also bond with another atom in order to share the electrons in its outer shell and thus fill the outer shells of both atoms simultaneously.
It is when these bonds among atoms break apart that free radicals are formed. A free radical is an atom with an uneven number of electrons in its outer ring. Because an atom prefers a state of stability, a free radical is very reactive, looking to bond with other atoms so as to fill up its outer ring once again.
Free radicals are not picky-they'll take an electron wherever they can get it. When a free radical picks up an electron from another molecule, then that molecule becomes a free radical that picks up an electron from another molecule and so on. If enough of these molecular chain reactions occur (and they occur instantaneously), the cell itself is disrupted or damaged.
Free radicals are a normal part of metabolism. But environmental conditions such as pollution, ultraviolet radiation, pesticides, auto exhaust, cigarette smoke, and consumption of fried foods and alcohol encourage the creation of free radicals.
This is where anti-oxidants fit in. Anti-oxidants are able to neutralize free radicals by bonding with them, thus ending their reactivity. Now instead of scavenging electrons, free radicals are inert. There are hundreds of different types of anti-oxidants ranging from vitamins like vitamins E, C and A to enzymes such as coenzyme Q10, superoxide dismutase (SOD), glutathione peroxidase and catalase. Plants are a wonderful source of organic anti-oxidants so a diet full of fresh vegetables and fruits is a good natural source of anti-oxidants. Anti-oxidants are also widely available in dietary supplements.
There are numerous theories on the role that free radicals play in the development of disease and the aging process itself. But conclusive proof as to the appropriate dosage or combination of anti-oxidants that might counteract this kind of free radical damage has yet to be agreed upon by the scientific community.