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How Antioxidants Work

Antioxidants minimize damage to your cells from free radicals.
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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 Blumberg.

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 protect yourself."

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