(ORDO NEWS) — Antioxidants are chemicals that prevent oxidation, a process in which an atom or molecule loses some of its electrons in a chemical reaction.
In the context of healthy eating, antioxidants are substances found in foods that help protect biological molecules such as DNA from this potentially damaging activity.
These substances include vitamins such as vitamin C and vitamin E, micronutrients such as selenium and zinc, and other common plant compounds such as lycopene and flavonoids.
A diet that includes a sensible combination of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and mushrooms should contain enough antioxidants to protect our cellular mechanisms from oxidative stress.
How does oxidation harm our body?
Oxidative damage occurs when an electron is stolen from an important biochemical structure, such as a base in the genetic code or amino acids that make up proteins.
Simple changes to the DNA can turn a base into something else, changing its behavior so that it no longer writes the same sequence.
Altering parts of a protein can make it less prone to breakdown, which can lead to the accumulation of toxic clumps. Oxidation of the fats that make up cell membranes can make them less flexible, shorten their lifespan, or make them less adept at doing their job.
While our body has repair mechanisms to deal with these damaging changes, problems can build up as we age. Mutations are skipped, protein clumps are formed, and the risk of diseases such as cancer or even neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s is increased.
Even in the best-case scenario, oxidative stress can make a significant contribution to the aging process that we all take for granted.
Gray hair and wrinkles may not be avoidable, but the chemical processes that break into the body and steal a few electrons here and there may not help.
What causes oxidative stress?
Our body naturally produces a number of chemical products called free radicals as a consequence of typical metabolic processes. These include reactive oxygen species such as hydrogen peroxide, which is both a destructive and – under some circumstances – a beneficial signaling molecule.
To deal with these reactive species, our body produces enzymes with antioxidant properties, such as superoxide dismutase. Such enzymes curb the formation of free radicals, either by quickly replacing lost electrons or by scavenging free radicals before they can cause harm.
However, the environment can also be a source of free radicals. The absorption of pollutants, including cigarette smoke and toxic metals, can weaken the body’s own defenses and increase oxidative damage.
Do You Need Antioxidant Supplements?
Thanks to our own enzymes and the antioxidants we get from food, our bodies are as well prepared as possible to handle oxidative stress.
Unfortunately, adding more antioxidants is not the solution we can imagine. First, increasing the number of electron donors will not necessarily restore the balance between electron theft. What’s more, decades of research has found no evidence that antioxidant supplements can reduce the risk of poor health or fight aging.
Moreover, the evidence points in the opposite direction. A meta-study of randomized trials conducted in 2007 found a slight increase in mortality in groups taking antioxidant supplements.
Further research is needed to find out why supplemental antioxidants do not seem to reduce oxidative stress in the body and what might possibly do so.
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