Antioxidants and their benefits

Written by Harold Gunatillake-Health writer

Antioxidant is a molecule that inhibits oxidation (depriving oxygen atoms or electrons) of other molecules. Aging, rusting, decaying are all processes of oxidation. Rusting your front gate is also an oxidative process. An apple slice turns brown, fish becomes rancid, all these result from a natural process – oxidation. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that transfers electrons (oxygen) from a substance to an oxidizing agent. Oxidation seems to produce free radicals which in turn start a chain reaction. Such chain reactions within a cell cause damage and death to the cell. Antioxidants prevent these chain reactions and prevent the process of decay. They do this by being oxidizing themselves, receiving an electron, and then, referred as reducing agents.

All living organisms need oxygen for metabolic activities, including dietary nutrients in order to produce energy for survival. Mother-nature provides thousands of different antioxidants in various amounts in fruits, vegetables, whole grain, nuts and legumes to fight damaging cells caused by free radicals.

Though the oxygen we breathe from the air is beneficial for metabolic activities, it can damage other molecules being highly reactive and form “free radicals.” It is noted that while the body metabolises oxygen very efficiently, 1% or 2% of cells will get damaged in the process and turn into free radicals.

These free radicals can attack healthy cells of the body causing disease and severe disorders. Free radicals are responsible for cancer, heart disease, decline in brain function, and immune systems among others, and over 50 diseases.

These free radicals contain an unpaired electron, akin to a bachelor situation and are most unstable and restless and go and steal electrons (partners) from other substances in order to neutralize themselves, as in a marriage situation. This stabilizes the free radicals, but generates another in the process. This causes a chain reaction and over thousands of free radical reactions can occur within a few seconds on the primary reaction.

WE are fortunate that most of the natural healthy foods, such as vegetables and fruits give us adequate antioxidants to neutralize free radical reactions. These chemicals are Vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene is among the most popular ones.

External toxins, especially smoking and air pollution are free radicals generated. Even during exercise, especially gym workouts can generate lot of free radicals, hence doctors advise you to have intervals of a day or two, between strenuous exercises.

Normal cell functions produce a small percentage of free radicals, much like a car engine that emits fumes. But those free radicals are generally not a big problem. They are kept under control by antioxidants that the body produces naturally,

Vitamin E is the most important lipid soluble antioxidant. It is important as the chain-breaking antioxidant within the cell membrane. It can protect the membrane fatty acids from lipid peroxidation. Vitamin C in addition is capable of regenerating vitamin E.

Beta carotene and other carotenoids also have antioxidant properties. Carotenoids work in synergy with vitamin E. Apart from diet, the body also has several antioxidant mechanisms that can protect itself from free radical damage. The antioxidant enzymes – glutathione peroxidase, catalase, and superoxide dismutase (SOD) are such enzymes. They require micronutrient cofactors such as selenium, iron, copper, zinc, and manganese for their activity. It has been suggested that an inadequate dietary intake of these trace minerals may also lead to low antioxidant activity.

Benefits boost immune system
One of the best ways to prevent diseases, even colds is by boosting your immune system by taking foods containing antioxidants you could achieve. There are certain foods like mushroom, one of the best foods to enhance your immune system. In Japan and China, in cancer hospitals, the diet of all cancer patients includes Reishi and Mytake mushrooms. Foods and fruits containing beta-carotene, Vitamin E and vitamin C are excellent immune boosters.

Antioxidants are found in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to protect human cells.  Many experts believe the damage caused by free radicals plays a part in a number of chronic diseases, including hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), cancer, and arthritis.

Beta-carotene and other carotenoids: Apricots, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, corn, green peppers, kale, mangoes, turnip and collard greens, nectarines, peaches, pink grapefruit, pumpkin, squash, spinach, sweet potato, tangerines, tomatoes, and watermelon

Vitamin C: Berries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cauliflower, grapefruit, honeydew, kale, kiwi, mangoes, nectarines, orange, papaya, red, green or yellow peppers, snow peas, sweet potato, strawberries, and tomatoes

Vitamin E: Broccoli, carrots, chard, mustard and turnip greens, mangoes, nuts, papaya, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, and sunflower seeds
Other super foods that are rich in antioxidants include:;Prunes; Apples; Raisins; ; All berries; Plums; Red grapes; Alfalfa; sprouts; Onions; Eggplant

Antioxidants are found in
Zinc: Found in oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, seafood, whole grains, fortified cereals, and dairy products

Selenium: Found in Brazil nuts, tuna, beef, poultry and fortified breads, and other grain products

Taking one vitamin may not be sufficient as an antioxidants, as you may miss out on other nutrients that could strengthen the immune system. Taking too much of vitamin E and A may turn toxic, one has to be careful.

Taking a multivitamin supplement can provide the body with an antioxidant boost. But taking fresh fruits, vegetables and pulses should be sufficient for a healthy person.
In Sri Lanka, people having sufficient antioxidants are far from the average person’s earnings. Most people are not aware of the value of antioxidants in our foods and fruits.

Fruits are very expensive in Sri Lanka, and there is an added tax for most imported ones. Small size papaw is nearly Rs 150 whilst the packet of rice and curry is Rs 100. Which one will you go for, if you are poor?

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