How Antioxidants Work
Antioxidants minimize damage to your cells from free radicals.
The Danger of Free Radicals continued...
Free radicals trigger a damaging chain reaction, and that's the crux of the
problem. "Free radicals are dangerous because they don't just damage one
molecule," Blumberg explains. "One free radical can set off a whole
chain reaction. When a free radical oxidizes a fatty acid, it changes that
fatty acid into a free radical, which then damages another fatty acid. It's a
very rapid chain reaction."
These external attacks can overwhelm the body's natural free-radical defense
system. In time, and with repeated free radical attacks that the body cannot
stop, that damage can lead to a host of chronic diseases, including cancer,
heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease.
Oxidative damage in skin cells is caused by cumulative sunlight. But if free
radicals are in an internal organ - for example, if asbestos is in your lungs
-- it stimulates free radical reactions in lung tissue. "Cigarette smoke
has active free radical generators," says Blumberg. That's why stopping
smoking is the biggest step anyone can take to preserving their health.
Getting Antioxidants in Your Diet
In the 21st century, people need to get more antioxidants in their diet to
offset all these assaults, he says. "These toxins are ubiquitous in the
environment. If you live in a city, you breathe the air. The oxidative burden
[on the body] is much, much, much higher than it was 200 years ago. It's a fact
of modern life, so we have to take that into consideration."
When you follow the USDA's advice to eat multiple servings of fruits and
vegetables, you're compensating for the effects of environmental toxins. Your
body simply doesn't produce enough antioxidants to do all that, says
What exactly do they do? Antioxidants work to stop this damaging,
disease-causing chain reaction that free radicals have started. Each type of
antioxidant works either to prevent the chain reaction or stop it after it's
started, Blumberg explains.
Types of Antioxidants
"For example, the role of vitamin C is to stop the chain reaction
before it starts," he says. "It captures the free radical and
neutralizes it. Vitamin E is a chain-breaking antioxidant. Wherever it
is sitting in a membrane, it breaks the chain reaction."
Flavonoids are the biggest class of antioxidants. Researchers have
identified some 5,000 flavonoids in various foods, Blumberg tells WebMD.
Polyphenols are a smaller class of antioxidants, which scientists
often refer to as "phenols." (Terms like phytonutrient and
phytochemical are more generic terms that researchers sometimes use to describe
nutrients and chemicals in plants.)
"We have clear science about antioxidants, that our bodies need a
Natural Antioxidant Defense Network, for lack of a better term," Blumberg
says. "Just like a country needs a military system, the human body needs
defense workers at all levels -- lieutenants, corporals, generals, staff
sergeants - in the form of antioxidants."