I’d like to share with you some information about the power of antioxidants.
In my last post “Energy Production and Cardiovascular Health!” we talked about how aerobic respiration produces 18 times more energy than anaerobic respiration. How the proper use of oxygen by your cells’ mitochondria is a powerful tool for creating energy. However, when oxygen is used it also creates free radicals which can damage your cells. To prevent this damage you need antioxidants. This post will examine the need for antioxidants to fight free radical damage.
What’s A Free Radical?
No, it’s not a 1960s hippie from Berkeley. Rather, it is an unstable atom or molecule. In very simple terms a free radical is an atom or molecule that is missing an electron in its outer orbit. Because of this unbalanced state the free radical will try to steal an electron from a different atom or molecule to stabilize itself. This process causes the affected atom or molecule to become unstable resulting in a new free radical. The result is a chain reaction that can continue until the final free radical steals an electron from a cell wall resulting in the disruption of a living cell. This constant process of free radicals stealing electrons from living tissue results in the aging process we all experience. It’s also a major cause of damage to the endothelial cells that line all of your cardiovascular system.
What Are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are molecules that freely gives away their outer electrons. Thus, they will give the free radical its needed electron to return it back to a stable compound. Now, you might be thinking that these antioxidants will become free radicals. Here is the really impressive aspect of this process. They do not become free radicals because they are stable in either form (with or without an even number of electrons in their outer orbit). This stability allows them to act as free radical scavengers to help prevent cell and tissue damage.
3 Most Common Antioxidants
If it weren’t for the remarkable stability of these compounds, as they freely give their electrons to stabilize free radicals, we would age quite rapidly. The three most commonly known antioxidants are:
Vitamin E (d-alpha tocopherol) is the most abundant fat-soluble antioxidant in the body. It may protect against cardiovascular disease and is commonly found in nuts, seeds, vegetable and fish oils, whole grains, and certain fruits.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is the most abundant water-soluble antioxidant in the body. It has the unique ability to return Vitamin E to its active form. It is commonly found in citrus fruits and juices, green peppers, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, kale, cantaloupe, kiwi, and strawberries.
Beta-carotene (precursor to Vitamin A) is the most misunderstood of all these compounds. It’s commonly found in liver, egg yolk, milk, butter, spinach, carrots, squash, broccoli, yams, tomato, cantaloupe, peaches, and grains. Beta-carotene is water-soluble and has no set RDA requirements. However, it’s the precursor to Vitamin A. Vitamin A is fat-soluble, has no antioxidant properties, and can be quite toxic when taken in excess. Because of this, most physicians warn against Beta-carotene. However, they forget that the body controls the conversion of Beta-carotene to Vitamin A on a “needs only” basis. Thus, your body will only make as much Vitamin A from Beta-carotene as it needs. This usually prevents any toxicity.
It’s extremely important to note that these compounds are all critical for proper health. The body cannot manufacture them. They must be supplied in the diet. That’s why nutritionists encourage us to eat a balanced diet consisting of 5-8 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
As nutritional scientists continue to explore this realm of antioxidants, and their ability to offset free radical damage, some amazing compounds are being discovered like:
Alpha-Lipoic Acid – This powerful compound does double duty. Not only can it neutralize free radicals but it can also restore the antioxidant properties of vitamins C and E. Alpha-Lipoic Acid stimulates the body’s production of glutathione and assists in the absorption of coenzyme Q10. It helps to detoxify the liver, prevent cataract formation, protect nerve tissue, reduce blood cholesterol levels, and aid cells in metabolizing sugar.
Anthocyanidins – This is a phytochemical that helps to lower blood pressure, inhibit clot formation, enhance vision, strengthen collagen, and enhance the blood supply to the nervous system. It can provide up to fifty times the protection of vitamin E and ten times the protection of vitamin C.
Coenzyme Q10 – This compound has a structure similar to vitamin E. It’s critically important for cellular energy because it aids in metabolizing fats and carbohydrates. Since most free radicals are created in the oxidative process of creating energy, coenzyme Q10 plays a significant role in stopping free radical damage.
Flavonoids – Flavonoids are chemical compounds that plants produce to protect themselves. They have very powerful antioxidant properties. There are more than 4,000 chemically unique flavonoids with many of them having greater effectiveness than vitamins C and E or beta-carotene. Science is just beginning to discover this amazing world of flavoniods.
Glutathione – Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant produced in the liver from the amino acids cysteine, glutamic acid and glycine. Glutathione neutralizes the oxygen molecule before it can harm the cell. Additionally, it can combine with other molecules like selenium to create other powerful antioxidants. Glutathione is critically important to your health. It protects individual cells as well as the tissues of the arteries, brain, heart, immune system, kidneys, eyes, liver, lungs, and skin.
Melatonin – This hormone has the ability to penetrate the cell’s mitochondria and protect it from free radical damage. Most of the cell’s energy is produced by the mitochondria. Since energy production creates free radicals, compounds specific to the mitochondria play a huge role in protecting cell function.
OPCs – Oligomeric Proanthocyanidins are unique flavonoids that can cross the blood-brain barrier to protect the brain and spinal nerves against free radical damage. OPCs are found in plant life. The two main sources are pine bark extract (commonly called Pycnogenol) and grape seed extract.
Polyphenols – This is a phytochemical produced by plants. They have antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, and other health-enhancing properties.
Selenium – This is an essential trace mineral which partners with vitamin E to provide oxidative protection. Use caution when taking supplemental selenium. The recommended maximum safe dosage is 400 micrograms daily.
Superoxide Dismutase – This is an enzyme that helps to revitalize cells and reduce the rate of cell destruction. It’s particular important in neutralizing the most dangerous free radicals called superoxide radicals. These free radicals breakdown the synovial fluid which lubricates the body’s joints leading to joint friction and inflammation.
Zinc – This mineral’s main function is in the prevention of fat oxidation.
This is just the tip of the iceberg regarding antioxidants. This post doesn’t even cover some of the newly discovered super foods like Brazilian Acai which have tremendous anti aging properties and heart health benefits. It’s important to note that antioxidants work synergistically in providing their protection against free radical damage. Thus, it’s better to take smaller doses of a variety of these compounds than just a large amount of only one type. For most fruits and vegetables the majority of the beneficial properties are contained in the skin.
Since free radical damage is the leading cause of many cardiovascular health issues it makes perfect sense to consume foods and products that contain antioxidants. This reduces free radical damage to help slow down the oxidative damage done to your endothelial cells. Cells that are critically important to the proper production of nitric oxide, your body’s master signaling molecule for the cardiovascular system..
Together we can work to save a million lives!
Dan Hammer is a Wellness Educator who has a background in biology, chemistry and exercise physiology. He used to run one of the largest health club operations in the Chicago area and has been helping people with their wellness issues for more than 25 years.
The information contained in this article is for general information purposes only and never as a substitute for professional medical advice or medical exam. The information about Antioxidants contained in this article has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease without the supervision of a qualified medical doctor.