Antioxidants can be conceptualized in a number of different ways: as insurance against some of the more visible effects of aging; as a weapon in our fight to make our average life expectancy more closely resemble our ultimate lifespan; and as a line of defense against the risk of developing certain illnesses and diseases.
"Antioxidant" is a classification of several organic substances, including vitamins C and E, vitamin A (which is converted from beta-carotene), selenium (a mineral), and a group known as the carotenoids. Carotenoids, of which beta-carotene is the most popular, are a pigment that adds color to many fruits and vegetables – without them, carrots wouldn't be orange, for example. Together as antioxidants, these substances are thought to be effective in helping to prevent cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
Conflicting reports on the health benefits of antioxidants and beta-carotene exist. It is difficult to know what to believe and whose advice to follow. It is best to remember that vitamin and mineral supplements should never be used as substitutes for a healthy, well balanced diet. It is also important to note that we can "over-supplement" our bodies, taking much more than the recommended daily value of certain vitamins and minerals. Vitamins A and E are fat soluble, meaning that excess amounts are stored in the liver and fatty tissues, instead of being quickly excreted, creating a risk of toxicity.
Your best bet is to eat a diet rich in fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, cantaloupe, and mangoes are great sources of antioxidants.
At the molecular and cellular levels, antioxidants serve to deactivate certain particles called free radicals. Antioxidants are substances that reduce, neutralize, and prevent the damage done to the body by free radicals. Free radicals are simply electrons that are no longer attached to atoms. Instead of circling the nucleus of an atom (much like the earth circles the sun), free radicals are both free and radical enough to go careening through our cells, inflicting damage as they go.
A process called oxidation creates free radicals and this process happens in the context of normal metabolic processes and our everyday exposure to our environment. In other words, eating, breathing, and going out in the sun all contribute to the process of oxidation, free radical formation, and the resulting damage that is caused to the cells of our bodies.
In humans, free radicals usually come in the form of O2, the oxygen molecule. The oxygen molecule wants to be oxidized, and this oxidation process can sometimes be carcinogenic. Free radicals are the natural by-products of many processes within and among cells. They are also created by exposure to various environmental factors, tobacco smoke and radiation, for instance.
If allowed to proceed unhindered, free radicals can cause damage to cell walls, certain cell structures, and genetic material within the cells. In the worst case scenario and over a long time period, such damage can become irreversible and lead to disease (e.g. cancer). This is where antioxidants come into play.
Free radicals cause deterioration of bone, joints and connective tissue; the wearing out of organs; the decline of the immune system; the irritating advance of the visible effects of aging; and even, possibly, to some extent, the aging process itself.
Antioxidants play the housekeeper's role, "mopping up" free radicals before they get a chance to do harm in your body. Researchers have postulated that antioxidants prevent the possible carcinogenic effects of oxidation. Despite numerous studies carried out on the role of antioxidants in cancer and heart disease prevention, the jury is still out as to which groups of people, if any, benefit from taking antioxidant supplements.
Because free radicals are implicated in all these processes, minimizing and neutralizing their activity with antioxidants may allow us to live longer and healthier lives, look and feel better, and reduce or eliminate the risk of certain illnesses.
Some studies have shown that smokers with diets high in carotenoids have a lower rate of lung cancer development than their smoking counterparts whose carotenoid intake is relatively low. A more recent study, however, indicated that some beta-carotene takers, primarily smokers, actually had higher death rates.
Other research efforts have suggested that diets high in carotenoids may also be associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer. Also, vitamin C has been found to prevent the formation of N-nitroso compounds, the cancer-causing substances from nitrates and nitrites found in preserved meats and in some drinking water.
Many researchers claim that elderly people, especially those who have reduced their food intake, frequent aspirin users, heavy drinkers, smokers, and people with impaired immune systems may benefit from taking antioxidant supplements daily. In terms of heart disease and stroke, it is possible that higher levels of antioxidants slow or prevent the development of arterial blockages, a complicated process involving the oxidation of cholesterol. Moreover, antioxidants may deter the collection of plaque on arterial walls.
The risk of cataracts may be reduced by long term use of a daily multivitamin, recent study findings suggest. Researchers found that individuals who took a multivitamin or a supplement that contained vitamins C or E for more than 10 years had a 60% lower risk of developing a cataract, regardless of other risk factors. [Archives of Ophthalmology November, 2000;118: pp.1556-1563]
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