Antioxidants are minerals (like selenium, chromium, zinc, and calcium) vitamins (especially A, C and E) and some enzymes and hormones. Lycopene, lutein, and flavonoids are among other important antioxidants.
Most vitamins and minerals are found naturally in food, chiefly fruits, and vegetables. Hormones and enzymes are produced in the body, aided by factors like a diet that boosts their production. Antioxidants play a major role in the body by combating the damage done by free radicals.
Causes of Free Radicals
Free radicals are chemical particles that can cause severe damage to the cell structure. There are a number of factors that lead to their production.
- They are produced when there is oxidation in the body. This is a natural process which produces energy in the body.
- Environmental factors like pollution, exhaust fumes, tobacco smoke, radiation, and excessive sun exposure encourage free radicals.
- They are also triggered by lifestyle-related factors like smoking, stress, a faulty diet (such as cholesterol-rich food), cooking habits (such as barbecuing and excessive frying) and alcohol consumption.
Effect of Free Radicals
They are unstable molecules that attack the DNA, cells, and protein, leading to a breakdown of the immunity system, irrevocable damage to vital organs and degenerative diseases like cancer, heart problems, diabetes, premature aging, and macular degeneration. The joints, bones and connective tissue are also affected, leading to inflammation in the arthritic joints.
General Functions of Antioxidants
Antioxidants interact with the free radicals and neutralize their harmful effects, thus keeping the body disease free.
- They protect cells from damage and even repair them.
- Antioxidants increase immunity and prevent cancer and infections.
- They help to prevent degenerative conditions like heart diseases, macular degeneration, glaucoma, rheumatoid arthritis., and diabetes, as well as autoimmune diseases.
- Antioxidants arrest conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
- They also delay the onset of wrinkles and other signs of skin aging and counteracts the effects of sun damage.
- Antioxidants are like analgesics and control pain. They also alleviate inflammation and fever.
Functions of Antioxidant Vitamins
Vitamins A, C, and E are powerful antioxidants. The first two minimize cell damage, while beta carotene (a form of vitamin A) strengthens the immunity by stabilizing free radicals.
Vitamin E performs a number of functions, especially as it blocks the carcinogens which are formed in the stomach due to some kinds of food. Vitamin E repairs DNA, prevents colon and breast cancer, diabetes and aging, raises good cholesterol and prevents heart diseases and improves eyesight.
Specific Functions of Other Antioxidants
There are other antioxidants found in food, which apart from their general functions, play specific roles.
- Lycopene is beneficial for the prostate gland.
- Lutein ensures healthy vision, prevents macular degeneration and increases the macular pigment in the eye. It also prevents cardiac problems.
- Zeaxanthin is another antioxidant which contributes to good eyesight.
- Flavonoids are a group of powerful antioxidants that maintain cellular health, and improve the functioning of the heart, brain and urinary tract. Green tea is a rich source of flavonoids that boost blood circulation and protect the heart. Catechins in tea also prevent damage to artery walls. The Ginkgo Biloba herb has flavonoids that stimulate blood circulation in the brain and lower legs. Moreover, they increase memory and prevent cognitive decline related to old age.
- Curcumin in turmeric is a powerful antiseptic and anti-inflammatory and protects the liver from free radicals.
- The antioxidant in beetroot is called betacyanin and stimulates the liver and immune systems.
Countries where green tea is a popular drink report fewer cases of cancer.
This is also true of those that follow a Mediterranean diet rich in antioxidant items like broccoli, tomatoes and olive oil.
With advancing age, the antioxidants in the body generally decrease, resulting in a decrease of cognitive functions and causing debilitating conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, it is essential to consume enough antioxidants to negate the ill effects of free radicals and maintain good heath.