How Antioxidants Work
Antioxidants minimize damage to your cells from free radicals.
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."
Getting the Right Mix of Antioxidants
The body needs a mix of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, C, E, and
beta-carotene, to neutralize this free radical assault.
"We can't rely on a few blockbuster foods to do the job," says
Blumberg. "You can't eat nine servings of broccoli a day and expect it to
do it all. We need to eat many different foods. Each type works in different
tissues of the body, in different parts of cells. Some are good at quenching
some free radicals, some are better at quenching others. When you have
appropriate amounts of different antioxidants, you're doing what you can to