You’ve probably come across the word antioxidant
many times in passing. Food labels proclaim your orange juice to be “rich
in antioxidants”; the health section of the newspaper details the latest findings
on how antioxidants are important in cancer prevention. But you may wonder what
are they, how do they do good things for our health, and how do you make sure you’re
To answer those questions, you first need to understand free radicals and oxidization.
You might recall learning about protons and electrons in high school chemistry,
the atomic particles that have positive and negative charges. Electrons are the
negatively charged particles that are important in the formation of certain kinds
of chemical bonds. Electrons are transferred or shared by atoms when these bonds
are formed. The “goal” of each atom is to obtain a stable configuration
of electrons, with every electron in its outer (or valence) layer paired
Atoms or molecules with weak bonds sometimes split apart, creating free radicals.
Because free radicals have an unpaired electron in their outer layer, they are highly
reactive, which means they are highly prone to “stealing” electrons
from stable, oxygen-containing molecules and atoms — an event called oxidization.
The loss of an electron to the free radical makes the “robbed” molecules
or atoms unstable and may even make them act as free radicals themselves, leading
to a chain reaction of electron theft among molecules.
In the human body, free radicals are not always bad. They contribute to our immune
defense by attacking bacteria and other foreign substances, they help maintain our
vascular tone, and they are part of the chemical chain reaction that our bodies
use to transform food to energy. But when excess free radicals steal electrons from
the molecules that make up our genes, proteins, and cell membranes, they can damage
these crucial molecular structures in our cells. And if oxidization affects many
molecules within a cell, the cell itself may become unable to function properly.
Think about how an apple turns brown when exposed to air and you’ll have a
snapshot of what happens when oxidization occurs: the cells deteriorate noticeably.
Neutralizing free radicals with antioxidants
This is where our friends the antioxidants come in. An antioxidant is a compound
that can neutralize free radicals by donating an electron to the free radical, pre-empting
the electron “theft” that can cascade into cell damage. They’re
the Good Samaritans of the atomic world, giving away a part of themselves to prevent
harm to others!
The body creates its own collection of antioxidant chemicals, including glutathione,
melatonin, and enzymes such as coenzyme Q-10 (ubiquinone), catalases, and glutathione
peroxidase, but its own antioxidant products aren’t enough to neutralize all
free radicals. Over time, free radical damage accumulates in the cells and strains
the body’s ability to repair itself. When oxidization occurs faster than antioxidants
can respond, the body is in a condition called oxidative stress. Oxidative
stress has been implicated in any number of diseases, from cancer to Parkinson’s
to atherosclerosis. It has also been linked to premature aging, most visibly in
the skin in the form of wrinkles and loss of elasticity.
Fortunately, the body can boost its supply of antioxidants with substances found
in food. Vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), carotenoids,
and flavonoids are some of the best known and widely available antioxidants found
in our food. Phytochemicals such as lycopene (found in tomatoes and watermelon),
lutein (in dark green vegetables), tannins (in teas), and lignans (in flax seed,
oatmeal, and barley) are also antioxidants. Some elemental nutrients like copper,
zinc, manganese, and selenium, though commonly referred to as antioxidants, do not
have antioxidant activity themselves but are critical to the activity of antioxidant
At Women's Health Network, we recommend a diet that is rich in whole foods from
organic sources, including fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs, berries, leafy greens,
whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fish. Citrus fruits, particularly when eaten whole
rather than juiced, contain many important antioxidant compounds that protect against
disease, including vitamin C and numerous flavonoids such as hesperidin. Red wine
and tea leaves are also rich
in flavonoids, particularly green tea, which has ten times as many antioxidants
as black tea and more than double the antioxidants of oolong tea.
Soy is also a great source of the antioxidants known as isoflavones.
A healthy, balanced diet is the best way for women to get the antioxidant nutrients
they need, but we always recommend a medical-grade
multivitamin to fill in any gaps. The good news is, with quality food choices
and optimal nutritional
support you can prevent or even reverse oxidative stress, and keep free
radicals in their place!
No matter what you eat today,
focus on staying healthy
with our supplements for Daily Wellness.