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Antioxidants - Vital for Good Health
What Are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are compounds in the body which neutralise other highly reactive elements, known as free radicals, which would otherwise cause damage to the cells of the body.
Every day, the DNA in each cell in your body faces about 10,000 attacks from free radicals,
To better understand the vital role played by antioxidants, it is first necessary to understand the concept of a free radical.
Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules that have lost an electron. Free radicals are naturally produced during normal metabolism. It is believed that up to 5 percent of the oxygen that each cell uses is converted into free radicals. In addition, pollution, smoking and other environmental factors lead to increased levels of these molecules in the body. Free radicals want nothing more than to stabilise themselves, which they do by stealing electrons from other molecules. In doing this they create still more free radicals, causing an iterative loop of damage.
Free radical damage can be devastating. It is thought to play a role in atherosclerosis - the accumulation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the lining of your artery walls which contributes to heart disease. DNA damage due to free radical attack can cause genetic mutations that can lead to cancer. Free radical assaults on your eyes may lead to cataracts and macular degeneration. Many researchers belive that free radical damage may play a role in Alzheimer's disease, and many scientists believe that free radicals are the primary force behind aging itself.
How then does the body protect itself from this scavenging curse? Enter the antioxidants.
The Role of Antioxidants
Antioxidants are protective compounds that travel throughout your body, neutralising free radicals by offering up their own electrons to the unstable molecules.
Your body produces antioxidants naturally. Some of these are enzymes created solely to deal with free radicals. However, the ability of these native antioxidants to deal with the free radicals can be insufficient, particularly if you're subject to environmental stress such as car exhaust fumes or cigarette smoke, and they may be insufficient to handle rising levels of free radical attacks as you get older. In this case, every day will see an accumulation of free radical damage to the otherwise healthy cells of the body.
Fortunately it's easy to supplement our reserves of antioxidants. There are literally hundreds of natural food compounds that act as antioxidants in the body. Most research has focused on three very active antioxidant compounds - vitamins C and E and carotenoids.
Molecules of highly protective vitamin C (also called ascorbic acid) are found throughout the cells and fluids of the body, including the blood, lungs, and eyes. Getting lots of vitamin C in your diet, through foods such as citrus fruits, red peppers and broccoli, can help protect against damage in many of your organs and tissues, including your heart, arteries, and eyes.
An important attribute of vitamin C is that it works very quickly. Vitamin C has been shown to block free radicals before other antioxidant compounds even arrive on the scene.
Vitamin C is believed to play an important role in protecting against heart disease. In a major study, researchers analyzed a national survey of vitamin C intake and death rate in 11,348 people ages 25 to 74 during a 10-year span. They found that men and women with high intakes of vitamin C (about 300 milligrams a day) from both food and supplements had much lower death rates from heart disease than those with low intakes.
Vitamin C may also help protect against certain forms of cancer. Research has found that a diet high in vitamin C is related to a lower risk of stomach cancer. Vitamin C-rich foods may also help protect you from cancer of the mouth, larynx, and esophagus.
Vitamin E (also known as alpha-tocopherol) is a fat soluble vitamin, unlike the water soluble vitamin C. As a result vitamin E is primarily involved in protecting your fat tissues from free radical invasion. This means that vitamin E is particularly effective in fighting heart disease by preventing the bad LDL cholesterol from being oxidised by free radicals and contributing to atherosclerosis. Rich sources of vitamin E include vegetable cooking oils, wheat germ, kale, sweet potato, and sunflower seeds.
There have been several studies linking vitamin E to a reduced incidence of heart disease. In one study of 80,000 nurses, researchers found that women with the highest vitamin E intake - about 200 IU a day - were one-third less likely to suffer from heart disease than their counterparts who were only getting about 3 IU a day.
Of particular significance to women, vitamin E has also been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer. A study at the State University of New York at Buffalo found that women who maintained high levels of vitamin E had significantly lower risks for the disease than women who had low levels. The benefits were most pronounced among younger women, although those past menopause were also protected.
Vitamin E seems to work more efficiently in the presence of vitamin C. It appears that vitamin C plays a part in reactivating the vitamin E molecule after it has reacted with a free radical.
The most studied member of this group of compounds is beta-carotene. There was initally great excitement when beta-carotene was linked to reduced levels of heart disease and cancer. Howver, subsequent studies found that taking high doses of beta-carotene throughb the use of supplkements could actually increase the risk of some of these diseases. The amounts of beta-carotene that people need are well within the range they can get from eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
It is an indisputable fact that beta-carotene has established benefits when taken in appropriate doses. In one study researchers found that people with the highest levels of carotenoids had one-third to one-half the risk of macular degeneration than those with lower levels. Another study, from the National Eye Institute, found that taking high doses of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and zinc may cut the risk of advanced macular degeneration by about 25 percent.
Food sources of beta carotene are believed to be superior to supplements. Scientists still aren't sure why , but it may be that the carotenoid group of compounds comprises over 600 different substaces. It's possible that observed benefits are not only due to beta-carotene but the combination of beta-carotene plus its less-recognized kin.
The vitamins C and E and beta-carotene form only a small part of a huge number of protective compounds found in foods. For example, the mineral selenium is needed for its role in supporting your natural antioxidant enzymes. Flavonoids and other types of phenolics in green tea, chocolate, and red wine also act as potent antioxidants. To maximise your opportunity for good health make sure you eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. This will help to ensure that you get healthy amounts of all of these antioxidants.
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