Often touted as a panacea for practically every disease under the sun, antioxidants have gotten a lot of attention in recent years due to their myriad health benefits. With the capacity to curtail the spread of cancer, dementia, cardiovascular disease, vision loss, and other chronic conditions that crop up as we age, do antioxidants really hold the key to vitality and longevity?
First put forth by Denham Harman in 1956, the free radical theory of aging posits that we – and other organisms – age as cells become damaged over time by free radicals.
All the molecules in the human body are composed of atoms that are held together with two electrons. Free radicals are molecules that contain only one electron. They are introduced into the body when you breathe, eat certain foods, and when food is turned into energy.
Because electrons are most stable when in pairs, free radicals will “steal” an electron from another pair, causing the original molecule to become a free radical itself. Setting off a chain reaction, this newly created free radical will steal from another electron pair, which will in turn take an electron from another pair, and on and on it goes.
Ultimately, unpaired electrons cannot function properly. Damage caused by free radicals, a phenomenon calledoxidative stress, leads to the death of affected cells in the body. It can dramatically change the cell structure of proteins and lipids while altering the instructions coded in DNA. Oxidative stress has been implicated in a dizzying array of diseases: cancer, cardiovascular disease, ADHD, depression, Parkinson’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts, diabetes, celiac disease, bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia, arthritis, influenza, and multiple sclerosis – to name just a few.
To minimize oxidative stress, our bodies do have a built-in defense. Enzymes called superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase are synthesized by the body to either remove or add an electron to every free radical molecules it encounters. These enzymes won’t completely mitigate the effects of free radicals, but they do degrade them so they are less damaging to the body.
Free radicals are generated by simply breathing oxygen, exercising, and digesting food. They are also found in fried foods, alcohol, cigarette smoke, air pollution, sunlight, and some medications. Unfortunately the antioxidants our bodies naturally produce are not enough on their own to combat the damage caused by free radicals – and this is why supplementing the system with a diet rich in antioxidants is thought to ease oxidative stress.
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