“Antioxidant” has become a buzzword in health and nutrition recently, but to many people, their function is unclear. Though the name sounds like they prevent rust, what antioxidents actually do is fight a condition known as oxidative stress, which is associated with a variety of conditions, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, and even aging– oxidative stress is one of the kinds of damage that builds up in the body over time, causing progressive weakening and other indicia of getting older. Researchers are learning more and more about how antioxidants work.
Molecules called free radicals are a part of the odinary metabolic process, meaning they are produced when your body uses the food you eat. There are also some non-food sources, such as tobacco smoke. These free radicals are chemically volitile and can cause chain reactions that damage cells, including through oxidative stress. Now scientists have found that cells protect themselves from oxidation by using a small molecule called glutathione as a sacrificial lamb, sending it into the free radical breach to keep the rest of the cell safe. The oxidized glutathione is then put in a cellular landfill where it won’t affect the rest of the cell.
Antioxidants include beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, selenium, and vitamins A, C, and E. Vegetables and fish are important dietary sources for antioxidants; vegetables should be lightly cooked rather than excessively boiled. Carrots, elderberries, apples, beets, and green tea are particularly good. Avoiding free radficals in the first place is also important to health. All food contributes to free radical formation, but it can be minimized by reducing fats and avoiding foods with preservatives.