What Are Antioxidants?

As the name implies, antioxidants are substances that are capable of counteracting the damaging, but normal, effects of the physiological process of oxidation in animal tissue. Antioxidants are nutrients (vitamins and minerals) as well as enzymes (proteins in your body that assist in chemical reactions). They are believed to play a role in preventing the development of such chronic diseases as cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, Rheumatoid arthritis, and cataracts.

Oxidative stress occurs when the production of harmful molecules called free radicals is beyond the protective capability of the antioxidant defenses. Free radicals are chemically active atoms or molecular fragments that have a charge due to an excess or deficient number of electrons. Examples of free radicals are the superoxide anion, hydroxyl radical, transition metals such as iron and copper, nitric acid, and ozone. Free radicals containing oxygen, known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), are the most biologically significant free radicals. ROS include the radicals superoxide and hydroxyl radical, plus derivatives of oxygen that do not contain unpaired electrons, such as hydrogen peroxide, singlet oxygen, and hypochlorous acid.

Because they have one or more unpaired electrons, free radicals are highly unstable. They scavenge your body to grab or donate electrons, thereby damaging cells, proteins, and DNA (genetic material). The same oxidative process also causes oils to become rancid, peeled apples to turn brown, and iron to rust.

It is impossible for us to avoid damage by free radicals. Free radicals arise from sources both inside (endogenous) and outside (exogenous) our bodies. Oxidants that develop from processes within our bodies form as a result of normal aerobic respiration, metabolism, and inflammation. Exogenous free radicals form from environmental factors such as pollution, sunlight, strenuous exercise, X-rays, smoking and alcohol. Our antioxidant systems are not perfect, so as we age, cell parts damaged by oxidation accumulate.