How Antioxidants Work
Antioxidants minimize damage to your cells from free radicals.
An apple slice turns brown. Fish becomes rancid. A cut on your skin is raw
and inflamed. All of these result from a natural process called oxidation. It
happens to all cells in nature, including the ones in your body.
To help your body protect itself from the rigors of oxidation, Mother Nature
provides thousands of different antioxidants in various amounts in fruits,
vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes. When your body needs to put up its
best defense, especially true in today's environment, antioxidants are crucial
to your health.
How Antioxidants Help Prevent Oxidation
As oxygen interacts with cells of any type - an apple slice or, in your
body, the cells lining your lungs or in a cut on your skin -- oxidation occurs.
This produces some type of change in those cells. They may die, such as with
rotting fruit. In the case of cut skin, dead cells are replaced in time by
fresh, new cells, resulting in a healed cut.
This birth and death of cells in the body goes on continuously, 24 hours a
day. It is a process that is necessary to keep the body healthy. "Oxidation
is a very natural process that happens during normal cellular functions,"
researcher Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, professor of nutrition at Tufts University in
Boston, tells WebMD.
Yet there is a downside. "While the body metabolizes oxygen very
efficiently, 1% or 2% of cells will get damaged in the process and turn into
free radicals," he says.
"Free radicals" is a term often used to describe damaged cells that
can be problematic. They are "free" because they are missing a critical
molecule, which sends them on a rampage to pair with another molecule.
"These molecules will rob any molecule to quench that need," Blumberg
The Danger of Free Radicals
When free radicals are on the attack, they don't just kill cells to acquire
their missing molecule. "If free radicals simply killed a cell, it wouldn't
be so bad… the body could just regenerate another one," he says. "The
problem is, free radicals often injure the cell, damaging the DNA, which
creates the seed for disease."
When a cell's DNA changes, the cell becomes mutated. It grows abnormally and
reproduces abnormally -- and quickly.
Normal cell functions produce a small percentage of free radicals, much like
a car engine that emits fumes. But those free radicals are generally not a big
problem. They are kept under control by antioxidants that the body produces
naturally, Blumberg explains.
External toxins, especially cigarette smoke and air pollution, are "free
radical generators," he says. "Cigarette smoke is a huge source of free
radicals." In fact, our food and water also harbor free radicals in the
form of pesticides and other toxins. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol also
triggers substantial free radical production.