What is an antioxidant

What Is An Antioxidant And Why Is It Important?

October 12, 2018

You’ve probably heard that you should be consuming more berries, spinach, and green tea because they’re antioxidant-dense. But what do antioxidants exactly do?

Many people – and maybe you – are already eating a diet with antioxidant-rich foods. This article will help you understand how these foods protect your health. Antioxidants are simply compounds used to protect our cells from oxidation.

After reading this, you’ll love your vegetables and fruits even more and foster a stronger relationship with the food we all need!

How do antioxidants work?

To understand how antioxidants work, we must start at the atomic level. An atom is the basic unit of matter and made up of three particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons.

 what is an antioxidant

Basically, the blue balls are electrons, which carry a negative charge (-) charge. The red balls in the middle are protons carrying a positive (+) charge. When two or more atoms are linked together, they form what is known as a molecule. Our human body is made up of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, fats, protein, and DNA, which are basically large molecules with thousands of these atoms combined. 

Our body is constantly producing chemical reactions to sustain life. For example, breathing is a chemical reaction. Glucose and other sugars react with oxygen to produce energy, creating water and carbon dioxide as waste products we breathe out or excrete. In order for the molecule to be stable, it must contain the right number of electrons. If the molecule loses an electron when it's not supposed to, it’ll turn itself into a free radical.

What are free radicals?

Free radicals are unstable molecules created during normal cell metabolism (a series of chemical reactions). Free radicals are formed when we eat food, which is converted into energy when we exercise or are exposed to sunlight, smoking, and pollution. When these free radicals build up in cells, they can damage DNA, protein and other cells, and increase the risk of cancer and other diseases.  

This is where antioxidants come to the rescue. If a molecule loses an electron (-) and turns into a free radical, the antioxidant will give it a new an electron (+) and make the molecule stable again, preventing it from causing further damage to the body.

What is an antioxidant

Free radicals will wreak havoc in your body to steal electrons they need from other molecules. When they do this, it sets off a domino effect of chemical reactions known as oxidative damage.

Oxidative stress

Free-radical formation is normal in plants, animals, and humans. For example, the body’s immune system cells use free radicals to kill bacteria that try to cause infection. Our bodies have a defense against free radicals, but when the strength of our body is weakened and free radicals outweigh the defenses, free radicals can cause lasting damage. An imbalance of free radicals (pro-oxidants) outweighing the antioxidants is known as oxidative stress.

Different diseases that oxidative stress can cause (1) include:

Risk Factors

As you know, everyone's body produces free radicals naturally through chemical reactions like exercise. There are several stress factors and lifestyle habits that promote excessive free radical formation and can lead to oxidative stress:

  • Air pollution
  • Alcohol intake
  • Cigarette smoking
  • High blood-sugar levels (2)
  • Vegetable oils (3)
  • Radiation from sunlight or tanning beds
  • Pollution
  • Infections due to bacteria, fungi, or viruses
  • Intense and prolonged exercise (4)
  • Antioxidant deficiency (5)

Antioxidant sources

The main thing we do to prevent oxidative stress is to increase your levels of antioxidants in the body and decrease your risk factors. Your body produces some antioxidants, but consuming a wide variety of fruits and vegetables will guarantee that you maintain proper antioxidants levels. Common antioxidants include:

  • Vitamin A - Is in milk, fish oil, liver, eggs, carrots, spinach, kale, and sweet potatoes.
  • Vitamin C - Is found in most fruits and vegetables like berries, oranges, broccoli, bell peppers, and tomatoes.
  • Vitamin E - Found in most nuts and seeds such as almonds, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.
  • Beta-carotene - Is mostly found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables such as peaches, mangoes, carrots, peas, and squash.
  • Lycopene - Is in grapefruits, watermelon, and tomatoes.
  • Lutein - Is mostly found in green leafy vegetables such as spinach, collards, and kale
  • Selenium - Found in animal products like beef, fish, and chicken. Also can be found in nuts, legumes, eggs, and grains.

Final thoughts

Antioxidants are molecules that help our body fight damage produced by free radicals. Free radicals and antioxidants are byproducts of the body’s natural and healthy functioning, but we must still ensure our diet is balanced in healthy food choices. Regular exercise and an adequate intake of antioxidants through a healthy diet is essential for preventing damage and disease to our bodies.

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