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Antioxidants Can Boost Your Health

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We often hear of powerful antioxidants that are believed to help the body fight several diseases and retard aging. So, what are these antioxidants and how do they work to help the body? If they actually do such good to the body, where do you get them and how much of them should you be consuming?

What They Are

Antioxidants are a class of molecules which neutralise harmful compounds, called free radicals, that are credited with a lot of damaging action on body cells. Free radicals inflict such disease-causing harm through an oxidation process by which they degrade healthy cells in the body. They can attack lipids, proteins, carbohydrates and nucleic acids within the body. By destroying the free radicals, antioxidants are believed to protect the body and reduce the risk of ailments like heart disease, stroke, cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, premature aging, inflammatory diseases, Parkinson's disease, periodontal disease, cataracts and others associated with natural aging.

Dangerous Free Radicals On The Prowl

It is believed that some 5% of our oxygen intake gets converted to free radicals during normal cellular metabolism. The free radicals are a by-product of the natural metabolic process, but are however harmful to the body as they can react with other molecules in the body, causing damage that can result in cell mutation and destruction. Environmental factors like tobacco smoke, radiation and food-derived toxins are believed to boost their production.

A free radical is a molecule with an unpaired electron. It is therefore unstable and highly reactive. They are also active in industrial processes in degrading materials like rubber, fuel and lubricants. Because of its missing electron, the free radical has an electric charge which it seeks to neutralise by stealing an electron from (or donating to) a neighbouring molecule, the process known as oxidation. This creates a new free radical, a process that replicates to damage many body cells: cell walls, genetic material within cells and other cell structures. In time, this may lead to disease and accelerated aging.

Antioxidants Do Battle For You

Antioxidants fight to contain the damage to your cellular structure by halting the chain reaction (oxidation) induced by free radicals. That's why they are antioxidants! They donate electrons to the free radicals to stabilise and neutralise them. It therefore seems logical that sufficient intake of antioxidants may help prevent diseases that would otherwise result from the degradation of body cells by free radicals. Research has shown this to be so. For instance, free radicals damage to cells which culminates in cancer may be retarded with a healthy dose of antioxidants.

A Large Family Of Organic Substances

Antioxidants are a sizeable family of organic substances, some of which the body produces. Others are obtained from the foods we eat or through dietary supplements that aim to provide them in concentrated doses. Some of the principal members of the family and their major sources are shown in the table below.

How Much And From Where

Given the antioxidative power of antioxidants, you would be tempted to consume high doses of antioxidant supplements. Well, you don't have to. Firstly, research has so far not confirmed good benefit from high consumption of supplements of antioxidants. More importantly, a regular balanced diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, will provide your body's requirement of the vital nutrients. If you must load up, it should be of the right fruits, vegetables, grains and other rich food sources.

Antioxidant Antioxidation Function Prominent Sources     
Carotenoids A class of several antioxidants, including the powerful beta-carotene. They are the fat-soluble colours in fruits and vegetables. Are believed to actively break the free radicals' chain reactions and prevent oxidative damage, thus reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc. Lycopene found in tomatoes, watermelon, guava, papaya, apricots, pink grapefruit, oranges and Lutein found in green, leafy vegetables such as collard greens, spinach and kale are also family members and are credited with cancer protection and eye disease prevention respectively. Fruits and vegetables, particularly bright-colored ones: carrots, squash, broccoli, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peaches, red and yellow peppers, mangoes, spinach, Brussel sprouts, cantaloupe, pumpkin and apricots; leafy vegetables, including collard greens, spinach, and kale.
Vitamin C
(ascorbic acid)
Another powerful antioxidant. Helps block free radicals, fights infections, helps walls of blood vessels stay firm and protects the gum. Is water soluble and not retained in the body: so you need a daily dose. Destroyed by heat and light, so store properly. Key source is citrus fruits: orange, grapes and tangerine. Others are sweet pepper, broccoli, strawberries and potatoes. Cereals, beef, poultry and fish are also sources.
Vitamin E
(alpha-tocopherol)
Protects against free radical damage that could cause chronic diseases, cancer, heart disease and cataracts. Found in various oils like corn and soybean oils, safflower, wheat germ, margarine, whole-grain products, seeds, nuts, and peanut butter, mangoes and broccoli. Since some are fatty, you need some moderation.
Vitamin A Also provides protection against free radical damage Liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk, egg yolk and mozzarella cheese are some of the vitamin-A rich foods.
Selenium Unlike the above antioxidants that are nutrients, selenium is a trace mineral only required in slight dose by the body, but nonetheless very essential. It constitutes the active site of several antioxidant enzymes including glutathione peroxidase. Seafood, red meats, poultry, pork, cereals, barley and other grains and breads.
Antioxidant Enzymes Superoxide dismutase(SOD), catalase(CAT) and glutathione peroxidase(GPx) provide a major defense mechanism against free radicals in the body. Avocado and some vegetables
Coenzyme Q10
(ubiquinone)
Necessary for body energy production and in combating free radicals. Fish (cod, salmon, sardines), egg yolk, whole grains
Others: more phytochemicals. (1)Allyl sulphides (2) flavonoids (3) isoflavones (4) phytic acid (5)isothiocyanates etc (1)Onions, garlic, leeks (2) grapes, blueberries, apples, strawberries, grapefruit, cherries, raspberries, blackberries (3) legumes like peas and soybeans (4) whole grains, legumes (5) broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts.
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