You’ve heard of antioxidants… It’s hard not to have heard the word when it’s such a fixture in the discussion of aging – a discussion that has almost become an obsession in today’s society. Though the term is thrown around a lot, do you truly understand what antioxidants are or why they are so important to overall health and well-being? And, more importantly, do you know what the great sources of antioxidants are and are you, personally, getting enough of them daily? Hopefully we’ll answer all that and more in the below article.
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are incredibly unique enzymes that defend the body against damage. They have the ability to “clean up” toxins and waste and also neutralize negative chemical chain reactions caused by rampant “free radicals”.
While the term “free radical” may sound harmless and more like an American dressed in camo and burning a flag in protest in front of the Capitol building- a free person committing a radical act – it’s actually something quite harmful and that occurs natural within the body. In order to explain the process fully, however, we have to explore a little elementary biochemistry…
Chemical Bonding – the principle responsible for free radical production and destruction
*Sigh*… high school biology with a little chemistry mixed in…
If you take a minute to remember back, you’ll probably recall a discussion on how the body is composed of several different types of cells; how each of these cells is made up on smaller particles called molecules; and how each of these molecules can be broken down further into particles called atoms composed of one of more elements joined together by a bond called a “chemical bond”.
Taking it even further, you would have learned that atoms are comprised of even smaller sub-particles called electrons, protons and neutrons, each with their own unit of charge: electrons being negatively charged, protons being positively charged and neutrons being neutral.
In addition, you also should have learned that atoms want nothing more than to achieve a state of stability and achieving total stability is dependent on the number of electrons held in the valence shell and the number of protons in the nucleus. If they are equal, the atom is stable. If they are not equal, the atom is unstable and will do anything to achieve stability.
This occurrence, where the number of protons does not match the number of electrons causes chemical instability in the atom. In an effort to correct the matter, the unstable atom will do one of two things:
- Gain or lose electrons to either fill, or empty, its outermost electron shell
- Share its electrons with other atoms by binding to them in order to complete its outer shell
Free Radical Formation
Now that we have biochemistry 101 back in our minds, let’s relate it to free radical formation in the body. The free radicals are the result of weak bonds between atoms being split. These free radicals contain an odd, unpaired electron, which causes them to be unstable and react quickly with other compounds. In an effort to regain stability, these free radicals resort to “stealing” electrons from the closest stable molecule around, which causes it to achieve stability, but causes the molecule that lost its electron to become a free radical. As a result, an instant chain reaction of destruction occurs: an unstable molecule breaks the bond between another molecule and its electron causing a new unstable molecule and so on.
How Antioxidants work to break the chain of destruction
We’ve all heard the expressions “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. While the origin of that common expression may have simply been a way for parents to scare kids into eating the fruits and vegetables that they knew were healthy for their children, there is more than just the fact that fresh produce being healthy that makes the statement true. Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants.
Some of the top antioxidant rich foods include fruits such as cherries, nopal cactus fruit, and pomegranates and veggies such as broccoli, spinach and beets.
Eating these types of foods on a daily basis helps to saturate the body with antioxidant enzymes which can then progress through the body at the cellular level and stop free radical damage in its tracks. It does so by offering up its own electrons to unstable molecules, much like a martyr offers up their life for the sake of peace…