Antioxidants: good or bad?

Though still in its infancy, the study of antioxidants and their effects on the human body has been a hot topic over the last few years.  Nutritional and supplement advertisers have even used the buzzword to entice consumers to use their “healthier” antioxidant-containing products.  

The billions of cells in our bodies carry out countless chemical reactions every second of every day.  They do this in order to produce energy for life and to manufacture the products that maintain normal body function and structure.  Many of these reactions can produce necessary, but potentially dangerous by-products.  

One such by-product is the “free radical.”  These are chemical elements with unpaired electrons in their outer orbital shell.  They can cause damage to normal molecules and cells by stealing or donating their unmatched electrons.

In the human body, the most common free radical is oxygen.  When it becomes electrically charged, it can react with other molecules.  This process is referred to as “oxidation.”  Probably the most well-known oxidative reaction is rusting.  Iron metal exposed to air and water is oxidized to produce rust, or iron oxide.

Free radicals can also be produced in the body by exposure to environmental factors; these include tobacco smoke, radiation, chemicals and sunlight.

Fortunately, the body has ways to deal with these free radicals or oxidizers.  They are called antioxidants.  Antioxidants are molecules that can interact with the free radicals to stabilize or “neutralize” them.  In this way, they prevent damage to other cell molecules.

Many molecules can act as antioxidants in the human body.  Among them are vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, lycopene, lutein, coenzyme-Q and glutathione.  Most of these antioxidants cannot be manufactured by our bodies.  They are obtained through food sources, particularly fruits and vegetables.  For example, beta-carotene is found in many foods that are orange in color such as carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins.  

Research on antioxidants focuses on the prevention of disease, whether it is heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or cancer.  For example, it has been shown that oxidation of the “bad” cholesterol molecule (LDL) may lead to fatty plaque development on the walls of arteries, i.e. hardening of the arteries.  Therefore, scientists are trying to determine if taking extra antioxidants will prevent this from occurring.  Some scientists theorize that it may be free radicals that cause our bodies to age.  

Logically, it would appear that if we load up on extra antioxidants every day, they would “mop up” all the free radicals in our system and keep us healthy.  However, the results of well-designed studies in humans have often been disappointing and inconsistent.  Getting too much of an antioxidant could actually be harmful to the body.

The bottom line is that the verdict is still out.  What we can say about antioxidants is that they play a vital role in our body’s delicate chemical balance.  And, since they are found in ample quantities in a well-balanced diet, it appears that the most prudent approach is obvious: eat your fruits and veggies every day!    

The content in this column is for informational purposes only.  Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment.  Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.

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