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Home > Articles on Health > Antioxidants and Free Radicals

Antioxidants and Free Radicals

Antioxidants, and their archenemy, free radicals, once the domain of health radicals and panned by many medical professionals, are now discussed in the same breath as fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Mainstream health magazines address them routinely, and last December they showed up in the nationally syndicated comic strip "Thatch."

Much of the talk in the mainstream revolves around four antioxidants: beta carotene, vitamins C and E, and the mineral selenium. This quartet does bring you powerful benefits, and these substances, and their benefits, are acknowledged by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

However, as researchers look harder, they are discovering many more antioxidants. Although these "newer" antioxidants do get occasional mention in the mainstream press, they are not nearly as well-known as the acknowledged quartet. This may be because they have not been known for so long, or because the FDA has not given them official sanction. What are these newer antioxidants?

Enzyme antioxidants are the bodyís first line of defense against free radicals. Our bodies produce them to combat free radicals. These "front line" defenders include superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase, and methionine reductase.

Superoxide dismutase (SOD) works in the cell mitochondrion - the cellís "power plant" - and counters the superoxide free radical. SOD helps prevent damage that is implicated in tissue degeneration associated with aging. Unfortunately, studies show that SODís natural production tapers off as we age.

Antioxidant Basics
It all starts with oxygen. We use oxygen to oxidize (burn) food for energy. This "burning" process, called oxygenation, results in free radicals. These free radicals are of minimum concern if kept at reasonable levels - our bodies produce enzymes to combat them, and free radicals are helpful in some body processes.

However, cigarette smoke, air pollution, water pollution, fried foods, and toxins also create free radicals. When these free radicals are added to the mix, it can result in overexposure, which leads to "oxidative stress," a condition in which the bodyís natural defenses are overrun.

If these excess free radicals attack DNA, which forms the bodyís genetic code, cancer may occur. If they attack blood vessel cells, it contributes to cardiovascular disease. Free radicals are also implicated in arthritis, strokes, and cataracts. Many health practitioners say that free radical damage is linked to many of the diseases that we commonly call "degenerative" and health problems that we shrug off as "getting older."

Antioxidants fight free radicals. Our bodies contain certain enzymes - such as superoxide dismutase - that fight free radicals, and we can also get them from the foods we eat. The best known antioxidants are beta carotene, vitamins C and E, and the mineral selenium. Other antioxidants include ginkgo biloba, coenzyme Q10, tocotrienols, and polyphenols, which are substances found in most plants.

Health editor James Scheer, writing in Better Nutrition magazine, notes that glutathione peroxidase plays a role in protecting the blood cells, heart, liver, and lungs, and that methionine reductase, although not as well-known as SOD or glutathione peroxidase, helps defeat some particularly dangerous free radicals - those created when you are exposed to radiation. Scheer comments that methionine reductase also helps deactivate free radicals created by mercury found in dental fillings.

Perhaps the best way to ensure that your body produces these enzymes is to eat foods that will spark their production. One of the best ways to do this is to consume sprouts. Because sprouts - the young shoots of plants - create many free radicals in their growth, they also create antioxidant enzymes. Consuming sprouts, or a sprout supplement, is one way to help your body maintain its first line of defense.

Coenzyme Q10, although long known in alternative health for heart health, is getting more and more attention as an antioxidant. And indeed it should. Denham Harman, M.D., who is the father of free radical and antioxidant research, believes that coenzyme Q10 is one of the most important antioxidants. He states that the aging process begins in the mitochondrion, the "energy furnace" located in the cell. Because free radicals are created when we burn food, the more we eat, the more free radicals are created, and thus, the more we need antioxidants. He notes that we should decrease calorie consumption and increase mitochondrion-stabilizing antioxidants to combat aging. He believes that coenzyme Q10 is the most important antioxidant for the mitochondria.

In an interview conducted by Richard Passwater, Ph.D., Harman states,

"The search for compounds that can slow down the rate of production of free radicals by mitochondria without depressing ATP formation is an important and interesting field of research. "Research in this area should mushroom in the next few years. Hopefully it will lead to measures that decrease free radical reaction initiation by the mitochondria without significantly decreasing ATP production."

"Studies of mitochondrial diseases indicate that the degeneration of mitochondria can be slowed in some cases. Apparently, the most effective nutrient is coenzyme Q10."

One analogy is worth a lot of jargon
If technical talk on renegade molecules and oxidative stress leaves you cold, try an analogy:

Think of a fireplace (you) with a continuously burning fire (oxygenation; energy production). As the fire burns, it shoots off sparks - free radicals. These sparks, if minimal, do no harm. However, if we throw more fuel on the fire (pollution, etc.), the fire roars, and a cascade of sparks results. These sparks fly out of the fireplace into the house, resulting in minor and perhaps major damage (disease). However, if we put an "iron curtain" around the fireplace, the sparks are extinguished as they fly against it and it prevents damage. Antioxidants function as the "iron curtain," extinguishing free radicals and preventing damage to the body.

Tocotrienols are one of the "newest" antioxidants. According to Randall E. Wilkinson, M.D., "tocotrienols exert significantly greater antioxidant protection than their analogous tocopherols [vitamin E]." (Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, Dec. 1997) The antioxidant potency of tocotrienols appears to be especially beneficial in regard to heart disease risk factors, as they appear to be a powerful way to lower cholesterol levels.

Ginkgo biloba, although better known as a "memory herb," is an antioxidant. Indeed, ginkgoís antioxidant ability may be the reason it is so beneficial. In a recent study on ginkgo and Alzheimerís disease (Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Vol. 278, No. 16), the researchers leading the study note that the reason ginkgo appears to be beneficial in Alzheimerís is due to its antioxidant power. In the 1993 book, Ginkgo Biloba Extract (EGb 761) as a Free Radical Scavenger (Ferrandini, Droy-Lefaix, and Christen, editors) the authors state that ginkgo extract is an effective antioxidant in the brain, retina, and cardiovascular system. This means that ginkgo may help maintain not only a "healthy" brain, but also healthy eyes and a healthy heart.

Juice and antioxidants
Juice is a source of antioxidants. In the Zutphen Elderly Study, a Netherlands-based epidemiological study of risk factors for chronic diseases in elderly men, researchers investigated the contents of some major antioxidant food flavonoids, including those found in plants and their juices. The study found an inverse relationship between dietary levels of flavonoids and incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD) deaths. The authors concluded that elderly men with increased levels of flavonoids in their diets may have a lower risk of death from CHD.

If you would like to get the flavonoids found in juices in a convenient manner, try the AIM Garden Trio!

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