Antioxidants are “all the rage” these days. As baby boomers get older and generations of all ages thirst for a knowledge of preventative health care, antioxidants have grown in popularity. People are looking for ways to prevent or slow down the aging and disease processes which may be caused by free radicals. Free radicals can improve the body’s immune system, but they are not needed in excess. Supplement companies come out with new antioxidants constantly because of profitability. The three primary antioxidants are vitamins C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. If all the antioxidant hype is legitimate, why grow older any faster than you have to!
Now, to review from high school, lets take a look at what exactly free radicals are, in order to more thoroughly understand how they function and their relationship to antioxidants. Antioxidants bind to free radicals. Free radicals are the unpaired electrons floating around the body, just waiting to bind to whatever they can, in an attempt to become stable by filling the outer shell to become stable. In order for an atom to become stable, it will either have to A) Share electrons by bonding with other atoms to complete the outer shell, or B) Gain or loose electrons to fill or empty the outer shell. Free radicals will attack the nearest stable molecule in order to take the stable molecule’s electron in the outer shell so the free radical can become stable. Then the molecule that looses it’s electron becomes an unstable free radical, a chain reaction will begin. After the process is started, it can eventually disrupt a living cell.
Now don’t get me wrong, some free radical activity is productive in the body. Free radicals are created by the immune system to neutralize viruses and bacteria. Some free radicals are created during metabolism. Although, free radicals are also created from pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and herbicides.
The human body is very smart, so it can normally handle
free radicals-as long as antioxidants are available. If free radical
production becomes excessive, then damage can occur. Free radical damage
occurs with age.
There are three main antioxidants that scavenge free radicals-vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. Selenium, a trace metal, is also required for the proper functioning of one of the body’s antioxidant systems. The antioxidant nutrients do not become free radicals because they are in a stable form even when they donate an electron. Antioxidants act as scavengers, by preventing cell and tissue damage that could lead to cellular damage and disease. All of these must come from the diet as the body cannot manufacture them on it’s own. The best sources of antioxidants come from food. A diet including 5-8 servings of fruits and vegetables per day is the best way to ensure the proper intake of antioxidants.
Vitamin E: A fat soluble vitamin in nuts, seeds, vegetable and fish oils, whole grains, fortified cereals and apricots. Currently, the RDA is 15 IU per day for men and 12 IU per day for women.
Beta-carotene: A precursor to vitamin
A (retinal). Beta-carotene can be found in egg yolk, milk, butter, spinach,
carrots, squash, broccoli, yams, tomato, cantaloupe, grains, and peaches.
The RDA has no set requirement for beta-carotene because it is converted
to vitamin A. Although, vitamin A has no antioxidant benefits and can
be toxic when consumed in excess.