Antioxidants are a crucial part of the diet because of the protection they offer the body. Knowing how antioxidants interact with your body will help you understand why it is important for you to include them in your diet on a daily basis, but not to oversupplement.
Antioxidants protect the cells in your body and prevent serious damage from free radicals created by oxidation reactions. Free radicals are created in the body as part of normal cell activity or due to external environmental factors such as breathing tobacco smoke. When an oxygen molecule loses electrons, it reacts by trying to steal electrons from other molecules. This process of oxidation starts a chain reaction of free radicals.
While oxidation reactions are a necessary part of bodily functioning, they can also be damaging if not slowed down by antioxidants. The free-radical rampage can cause damage to or even kill cells, and many researchers blame it for the development of certain diseases and conditions such as cancer, heart disease, strokes and neurodegenerative diseases.
Antioxidants stop the chain reaction by giving up electrons and neutralizing free radicals so they no longer need to steal electrons from other molecules. When antioxidants lose their electrons, they do not become reactive like other molecules do.
Types of Antioxidants
There are different kinds of antioxidants, each which serve a separate function in your body. The most well-known antioxidants include vitamins A, C and E, the mineral selenium, and the carotenoids beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene. Vitamin A and lutein are most well known for their help with vision, and vitamin C is known for preventing scurvy. All are promoted as immunity boosters and studies are often being performed to test their effectiveness in preventing myriad cancers and diseases.
While antioxidants are necessary in preventing disease and protecting the cells in your body, it is important not to oversupplement. Most antioxidants are not needed in large quantities. There is a tendency among some people to think that if a little is good, then a lot would be great, but that’s not the case.
Some antioxidants, like vitamins A and E, are fat soluble. This means they are stored in the body’s fat reserves and are not passed out of the body quickly. Therefore, taking extra amounts could increase the risk of toxicity. For example, high doses of beta-carotene supplements (from pills and not from food) have been associated with higher rates of lung cancer among smokers. Too much vitamin E has been shown to cause nausea, diarrhea and intestinal cramping among other symptoms.
Now that you know how antioxidants interact with your body-what they do for you and what they can do to you if you take too much-you can and should safely include them in your diet. A good antioxidant diet would be one of variety, including leafy greens, bright fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes.