Free Radicals vs Antioxidants: A Molecular War
“Antioxidants” is the new buzzword in every conversation that revolves around health and diet. Someone once said “Not all heroes wear capes” and here we have our hero saving us from something as devastating as cancer.
There are good guys and bad guys in a story. This is a story about how the antioxidants save you from the inimical actions of the free radicals.
Free Radicals are the bad guys flowing in our veins. Free Radicals can be a natural byproduct of the chemical processes in your body. But, too many of it indicates the paragon of an unhealthy functioning body and leads to various diseases such as:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
How Are These Bad Guys Formed?
Let’s try to understand what “Free Radicals” really are. Our body is made of various cells, each cell is composed of molecular bonds. A molecular bond is a chemical bond that involves the sharing of electron pairs between atoms. If a molecule loses an electron due to any internal or external factor then the unstable atom detaches itself from the bond.This loose atom becomes a “free radical”! This free radical hunts for an electron to stabilize itself. It steals an electron from a healthy molecule that it comes across. As a result, it creates new free radicals. And if there aren’t enough antioxidants in our body, this process could result in a chain reaction causing Oxidative Stress.
“Basically, I think of free radicals as waste products from various chemical reactions in the cell that when built up, harm the cells of the body.” says, Dr Wright (Dr Lauri Wright is a registered dietitian and an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of South Florida.)
It occurs when free radicals go out of control and create a chain reaction. If our body lacks enough supply of antioxidants. This condition can lead to cell damage. Oxidative stress is responsible for damaging proteins, lipids and nucleic acids according to an article in the Pharmacognosy Review. Source
Throughout the last few decades, several studies have suggested that the oxidative stress plays a role in the development of many conditions. This Includes muscular degeneration, cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers, emphysema, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ulcers and inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and lupus.
Free Radicals Linkage To Aging
They also may have a link to ageing, which has been defined as a gradual accumulation of free-radical damage, according to Christopher Wanjek, the Bad Medicine columnist for Live Science.
“The free radical theory of ageing states that we age because of free radical damage over time,” said Wright.
Free Radicals are part of the natural physiological processes or stimulated by external factors. It’s generated from the oxygen molecules during the process of metabolism. This process causes oxidation of the cells.
Internal or Physiological Factors
- Free radicals are created by oxygen molecules as part of the metabolism from the oxygen we breathe.</li>
- Cells at times create free radicals in order to neutralize foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria.</li>
- When metals like Aluminum, Mercury, Cadmium, Copper etc., are present in our body in higher than usual quantities, they tend to create free radicals.
- Air pollution is one of the paramount factors.
- Chemicals and pesticides in the food we intake. Household chemical products like paints, polishes and chemical based cosmetics can enter our bloodstream through our skin and breath, in turn inducing free radicals
- Processed and junk foods with polyunsaturated fats are susceptible to oxidation by free radicals. Unfortunately, burnt food contains free radicals, including blackened barbecued and char-grilled food.
- Cigarette smoke contains high amount of free radicals.
Here comes our savior! “Antioxidants!”
If you are already stressed reading about free radicals, here’s good news for you! Antioxidants are nature’s gift to fighting off the bad guys!
We hear about certain vegetables, fruits and berries being super rich in antioxidants. Let’s understand how antioxidants work and which are these amazing foods that contain a substantial amount of antioxidants.
Antioxidants donate electrons to the free radicals and neutralize them, preventing them from causing damage to our health. It turns the unhealthy atoms and molecules into healthy ones.
The human body has an elaborate antioxidant defense system. It’s manufactured by the body and can also be extracted from the food humans eat such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, meats, and oil.
The Important Antioxidants In Our Foods
Some of the well-known antioxidants include beta-carotene, lutein, vitamin C, vitamin E, lycopene and other phytonutrients. Vitamin E is considered as the most potent chain breaking antioxidant within the membrane of the cell. These antioxidants are found in different foods. Our body produces some antioxidants too. At times it’s too less to balance out the free radicals created due to various factors.
Antioxidant-rich foods are colorful, spectacular and tasty! Many vegetables, meats, fruits, nuts and berries contain antioxidants. An important anti-inflammatory antioxidant called astaxanthin is high in salmon and eggs with bright orange yolks. Brazil nuts are a key source of selenium, which is important for brain health, while almonds and sunflower seeds are great sources of vitamin E.
Popular Antioxidant-Rich Foods
- Raw cocoa beans
- Red kidney beans
- Acai berries
- Fresh Ginger
Herbs and spices are a good source of antioxidants too. Turmeric, in particular, is high in antioxidants. Spinach, kale and other leafy greens are high in antioxidants, vitamin c and other nutrients. Make a delicious salad or juice them up!
How to Retain the Antioxidant Properties of Your Vegetables
- Eating raw veggies maximizes antioxidant intake
- Steaming can retain nutrients and antioxidant properties
- Don’t peel them
- Minimize chopping
- Cook them whole
- Don’t overcook
The antioxidant level increases in particular foods when cooked. Tomatoes have high oxidants when cooked than raw! They have lycopene content, a prostate cancer-reducing antioxidant!
Green teas, red wine and coffee are high in antioxidants too, however, they need to be consumed moderately, as an overdose of them can be harmful to your health.
Homemade fresh berry smoothies give you your daily dose of antioxidants! Juice up some cranberries, blueberries or strawberries and do drink up your vegetables to get more antioxidants. Keep this in mind that smoothies and juices can be super healthy without processed sugar in them!
Probiotics Have Antioxidants Too!!
Probiotics are healthy bacteria that keep your gut microbiota healthy! In the recent decades, studies have shown that some of the healthy probiotic bacteria have antioxidant properties. Source
Is It Possible to Measure the Antioxidants in your Food?
Yes! It is possible to measure the antioxidant capacity of foods! With the help of a technique called “ORAC assay” (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity). However, In 2012, The United States Department of Agriculture which published ORAC data, withdrew its web publication of ORAC values for common American foods.
As the ORAC values are not validated for scientific publication. It’s best to eat your antioxidant-rich foods whole and raw than processed, to get the best out of them. However, the values are not completely wrong. But the product manufacturers are capitalizing on this data and this may mislead the consumers.
Antioxidant Supplements and Exercising!
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition article says, “Supplementing high-intensity exercise with antioxidant supplements produced no beneficial effects. But regular exercise alone was enough to build up antioxidant defences against the initial exercise-induced oxidative stress”. This topic is still being debated.
Stressful lifestyle and an unhealthy environment can definitely increase free radicals in our body. Now don’t get stressed about it! A quick way to avoid free radicals is to add some antioxidant-rich foods in your diet, which is as simple as grabbing a chocolate and YES, it keeps the bad guys at bay!