Getting sprayed with a fire extinguisher is only good when you’re on fire.
Antioxidants have become the poster child of a cure-all supplement. Companies tout them on the labels of health foods, add them to bottled water, and articles say they are the key to living a long life. Sniffles? Take some Vitamin C. Want to feel better? Drink this juice rich in antioxidants. Want to live longer? Take this supplement with an advanced antioxidant formula! And behind all of these seemingly magical effects are antioxidants’ ability to prevent the damaging effects of free radicals – apparently the villain of the health story.
What are free radicals? Put simply, they’re molecules that are highly unstable and will quickly react with others around them. In the human body, they typically involve oxygen or nitrogen, which leads to the technical categories of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS). They are so reactive because they have an unpaired electron, which has the energy to pull an electron away from another molecule nearby to pair that electron, damaging the donor molecule in return. This can sometimes even cause a chain reaction as the donor molecule can become a free radical when it loses an electron. This damage, especially when there’s a lot of it – a lot of “oxidative stress” – can damage your DNA, puncture a cell wall, or prevent muscle tissue from quickly repairing itself.
You get these unstable molecules most commonly when producing energy in the cell, which is moving lots of electrons around, and when there is damage to cellular systems or they become dysregulated. When systems aren’t working optimally, not all electrons make it to where they’re intended, increasing the probability of not pairing all the electrons in molecules, producing free radicals. This is most common with inflammation, where immune activity interferes with normal functioning of systems, with aging, where accumulated damage to DNA and other cellular systems interferes with operation, and when the body is highly stressed, so it’s running near its red line.
Scientists studying health problems from cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases to cataracts and cancer have found that there are elevated levels of free radicals present and higher levels predict more damage. So, antioxidants should be great, right? As with everything in this blog, the answer is sometimes for some people.
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