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Antioxidants and Free Radicals

"The balance between your intake of anti-oxidants and your exposure to free radicals may literally be the balance between life and death." – Patrick Holford

What is an anti oxidant?

Antioxidants are substances or nutrients in our foods which can prevent or slow the oxidative damage to our body. When our body cells use oxygen, they naturally produce free radicals (by-products) which can cause damage. Antioxidants act as "free radical scavengers" and hence prevent and repair damage done by these free radicals. Health problems such as heart disease, muscular degeneration, diabetes, cancer, ageing etc are all contributed by oxidative damage.

Antioxidants are classified into two broad divisions, depending on whether they are soluble in water (hydrophilic) or in oil/lipids (hydrophobic). In general, water-soluble antioxidants react with oxidants in the cell cytoplasm and the blood plasma, while lipid-soluble antioxidants protect cell membranes from lipid peroxidation. These compounds may be synthesized in the body such as glutathione or obtained from the diet.

Antioxidants are present in foods as vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, and polyphenols, among others. Many antioxidants are often identified in food by their distinctive colors - the deep red of cherries and of tomatoes; the orange of carrots; the yellow of corn, mangos, and saffron; and the blue-purple of blueberries, blackberries, and grapes. The most well-known components of food with antioxidant activities are vitamins A, C, and E; ß-carotene; the mineral selenium; and more recently, the compound lycopene found in tomatoes, watermelon, guava, papaya, apricots, pink grapefruit, blood oranges, and other foods.

The synergy of antioxidants

The synergy of antioxidants is vital. In other words a combination of antioxidants work better than a single antioxidant. See the diagram below (taken from Patrick Holfords book - New Optimal Nutrition Bible) to understand why this synergy of antioxidants is so important. Do yourself a favour and buy the book. It's worth having on your shelf.

Almost all nutrients depend on other nutrients to work properly. In most cases, taking individual nutrients on their own is a bad idea, with the exception of short-term, high-dose vitamin C when you've got an infection.
Antioxidant nutrients are team players. They pass dangerous oxidants along a chain reaction. Each antioxidant becomes an oxidant, hence dangerous, in the process and needs another team member to disarm then 'reload' or recycle it, ready to do battle once again with an oxidant.

In brief:

Co-enzyme Q10 and vitamin C disarms and recycles vitamin E.
Glutathione, Anthocyanidins, Lipoic Adic and Beta-carotene disarms and recycles vitamin C.
Anthocyanidins disarm & recycle Glutathione.

What is a free radical?

A free radical is a molecule with an odd, unpaired electron that creates an extremely unstable molecule.

A chemistry course in a nutshell

AtomTo the left we have an atom, which contains a nucleus at it center. The nucleus contains protons and neutrons. Surrounding the nucleus are electrons. These surround the nucleus in PAIRS = stable atom.
Occasionally an atom loses an electron, leaving the atom with an "unpaired" electron. The atom is then called a "free radical", and being unstable, it reacts quickly with other compounds, trying to steal the needed electron to gain stability. (Remember electrons need to be paired for an atom to remain stable).
Generally, free radicals attack the nearest stable molecule, "stealing" its electron. When the "attacked" molecule loses its electron, it becomes a free radical itself, beginning a chain reaction. Once the process is started, it can cascade, finally resulting in the disruption of a living cell.
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by donating one of their own electrons, ending the electron "stealing" reaction. The antioxidant nutrients themselves don't become free radicals by donating an electron because they are stable in either form. They act as scavengers, helping to prevent cell and tissue damage that could lead to cellular damage and disease.

How do free radicals damage and age our bodies?

Cell membranes are made of unsaturated lipids, which are particularly susceptible to this damaging free radicals process and readily contribute to the uncontrolled chain reaction. Oxidative damage can lead to a breakdown, or even hardening, of lipids which make up all cell walls. If the cell wall is hardened (lipid peroxidation) then it becomes impossible for the cell to properly get its nutrients and cellular activities can be affected. In addition to the cell walls, other biological molecules are also susceptible to damage, including RNA, DNA and protein enzymes.

The primary site of free radical damage is the DNA found in the mitochondria. Mitochondria are small membrane-enclosed regions of a cell which produce the chemicals a cell uses for energy. So the mitochondria is the 'energy center' of the cell. In the center of the cell is the nucleus which is the 'command center' of the cell. Every cell contains DNA which provides chemical instructions for a cell to function. This DNA is found in both the mitochondria and the nucleus of the cell. Now here comes the bad part . . . The cell automatically fixes damage done to the DNA in the nucleus of the cell but the DNA in the mitochondria cannot be easily fixed. So the cell loses energy and as the DNA damage accumulates over time, the mitochondria eventually shuts down and cellular death occus = damage on a cellular level = ageing, disease and "dis-ease".

The more toxic metals in your body, the higher the free radical activity.

Now here's the kicker. Heavy metals in your body multiply those free radicals chain reactions several thousands, possibly several million times. When a free radical molecule hits a metal atom in your body, the effect is multiplied many-fold. This is partly why it is so important to remove toxic metals from your body . . . . Vitamin C, vitamin C and more vitamin C!!!
It is also clear that environmental agents initiate free radical problems. The toxicity of lead, pesticides, cadmium, ionizing radiation, alcohol and cigarette smoke may all be due to their free radical initiating ability.

Click here for a chart of antioxidants - some vitamins, some minerals, some amino acids and others are hormones. For, example the antioxidant selenium is a mineral, while the antioxidant methionine is an amino acid and the antioxidant melatonin is a hormone. See also Vitamins and Minerals

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