Essential Guides to Antioxidants

Several essential vitamins and minerals act as antioxidants. These are protective substances found throughout the body, which mop up harmful by-products of the metabolism known as free radicals.

The most important dietary antioxidants are:

  • vitamin A and betacarotene
  • vitamin C
  • vitamin E
  • selenium
  • Lesser antioxidants that are also important include:
  • riboflavin
  • copper
  • manganese
  • zinc

What are free radicals?

A free radical is an unstable molecular fragment that carries a minute, negative electrical charge in the form of a spare electron. It tries to lose this charge by passing on its spare electron during collisions with other molecules and cell structures. This process is known as oxidation. Oxidation usually triggers a harmful chain reaction in which electrons are passed from one molecule to another with damaging results.

Body proteins, fats, cell membranes and genetic material (DNA) are constantly under attack from free radicals, with each cell undergoing an estimated 10,000 free radical oxidations per day. These collisions and chain reactions have been linked with:

  • hardening and furring up of the arteries
  • coronary heart disease
  • deteriorating vision due to cataracts and macular degeneration
  • premature ageing of the skin
  • chronic inflammatory diseases such as arthritis
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Parkinson's disease
  • impaired immunity
  • poor sperm count and poor sperm quality
  • congenital birth defects
  • cancer

What causes free radicals?

Free radicals are continuously produced in the body as a result of:

  • normal metabolic reactions
  • muscle contraction during exercise
  • smoking cigarettes
  • drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
  • exposure to environmental pollutants
  • exposure to x-rays
  • exposure to UVA sunlight, especially if sunburned
  • taking some drugs - especially antibiotics or paracetamol

Antioxidant vitamins and minerals are the body's main defense against free radical attack. They quickly neutralize the negative charge on a free radical before it can trigger a chain reaction. Many antioxidant supplements are now available to help quench free radicals and protect against their harmful effects on health.

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