Air pollution, chemicals, food additives, physical stress and our body’s normal use of oxygen contribute to the production of harmful free radicals that damage healthy cells. Free radicals are highly unstable compounds that carry an extra electron. By accepting the extra electron, antioxidants battle these free radicals. This process is known as oxidation and is very similar to the browning of an apple.
The antioxidant nutrients vitamins C and E, beta-Carotene and the mineral selenium control cell-damaging free radicals by becoming oxidized themselves. Excessive production of these harmful agents may destroy healthy cells, affect the cell aging process and are believed to alter DNA.
If left unchecked, free radicals or oxidants can break down your cells and tissues and may potentially lead to a variety of health problems.
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by donating one of their own electrons, ending the electron-stealing chain reaction. Unlike other molecules, antioxidant nutrients don’t become free radicals themselves, because they’re able to remain stable despite unpaired electrons. They act as scavengers, helping to prevent molecular damage that could lead to cellular damage and disease. Growing evidence strongly suggests that antioxidants have the power to reduce cell damage. Antioxidants may also improve immune system function and could possibly slow down some effects of aging, thanks to their ability to intercept and extinguish free radicals. The effectiveness of an antioxidant is generally measured in terms of its Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC). The antioxidant qualities of fruits and vegetables are much higher – and generally healthier for you overall – than most other types of foods. So, be sure to eat a balanced diet that includes five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Ready for some really good news? Chocolate (especially the dark stuff) has been found to contain high levels of antioxidants. Dark chocolate has 13,120 ORAC units per 100 grams – almost three times the antioxidant power of prunes. (Milk chocolate has 6,740 units.) The bad news is, of course, chocolate also has a lot of fat, sugar and calories. But, at least you don’t have to feel as guilty when you eat it!
Several herbs also have demonstrated antioxidant activity. These include bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), green tea extract, grape seed extract and pine bark extract.
In addition, research has shown that antioxidants’ protective effects occur when they’re taken at doses much higher than the recommended daily allowances (RDAs). For example, antioxidant/vitamin C studies typically use doses of about 1,000 mg of vitamin C (roughly the vitamin content of 14 oranges). Since it is unlikely that you’d eat 14 oranges, a vitamin C or multivitamin supplement would be a more viable option.