Antioxidants - what's all the fuss about?
We see the word 'Antioxidant' a lot these days, usually relating to food and beauty products. But do you know what they are and what they do?
To understand what antioxidants (the goodies) do, we need to know about 'free radicals' (the baddies). Free radicals are cells in our bodies that have been damaged by the naturally occurring process of oxidation (a reaction to oxygen). This is what makes apple slices go brown and metal go rusty - a good indication that oxidation is not a great thing! When this happens in our cells, oxidation knocks an electron off the molecules making them unstable - they become 'free' and erratic, furiously scavenging other cells to steal back the missing electron. The big problem is that scavenging free radicals injure other cells, damaging their DNA, causing them to mutate. Then the mutated cells can grow and reproduce further mutated cells at an abnormally rapid pace. If this chain reaction remains unchecked the mutated cells would proliferate leading to chronic health problems and increased risk of degenerative diseases such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
This process is constantly happening in our bodies' cells through normal functions such as breathing, digesting and exercising - we are designed to handle this with antioxidants produced by our own bodies. However, external factors can be massive producers of free radicals, for example, pollution, cigarette smoke, UV rays, pesticides and heavy metals in our food and drink chain, alcohol, fried and processed foods. This additional load (known as oxidative stress) is difficult for our bodies to cope with and is where antioxidants from our diet step in.
So, how do antioxidants help? Quite simply, they 'donate' an electron to the free radicals that have lost an electron, thereby neutralising them and stopping the chain reaction of cell damage. In turn this reduces the risk of degenerative diseases and slows down the ageing process. Going back to the apple slices - many of us will have used lemon juice (a natural antioxidant) to prevent them going brown, or at least slow down that process.
The four main antioxidant nutrients are Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Beta-carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A and Selenium, and here are some good food sources:
Vitamin E: nuts, seeds, beans, vegetable and fish oils, wheat germ, sweet potato.
Vitamin C: citrus fruits, peppers, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, kale, watercress, tomato, melon, kiwi, strawberries.
Beta-carotene: carrots, squash, pumpkin, spinach, broccoli, tomato, melon, peaches, apricots, sweet potato.
Selenium: tuna, cod, herring, chicken, oysters, molasses, mushrooms, cottage cheese, cabbage, liver.
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