Our bodies are constantly running a bunch of biochemical reactions that make us work. We’re converting food to energy using oxygen, converting electrochemical impulses to senses through your nerves, converting excess energy to fat, converting proteins to amino acids back to different proteins. Our bodies are magnificent! With all this metabolic activity taking place, there is bound to be some sort of waste materials our bodies need to get rid of. Most of our metabolic waste is removed through our urine, but there is one type of waste product from all these chemical reactions that does not just flow out of us. Some of our metabolic reactions produce waste molecules called oxidants or free radicals.
Free radicals are unstable atoms or molecules that damage any other molecules they come into contact with in our bodies. The reason they’re unstable is because they are missing electrons, so when they bump into other molecules they steal electrons from their atoms and damage them. In addition to being formed as a natural part of our bodies’ metabolic reactions, free radicals are also formed as a result of external or environmental factors like air pollution, cigarette smoke, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Once these molecules are formed and they move around inside of us, they cause damage to our cells, our proteins, even our DNA. They contribute to the damage in our bodies that lead over time to inflammation and disease.
Of course, our bodies are prepared to fight free radicals. We have a few enzymes to help neutralize free radicals and stop the damage they do. These enzymes depend on us having enough minerals/ electrolytes to work. So eating foods that provide us with healthy amounts of the minerals copper, zinc, selenium and manganese helps our bodies produce the enzymes that are our first line of defense against the damage done by free radicals. Although, these enzymes handle the most harmful free radicals, they don’t get them all. Thus our bodies have a second line of defense, and this second line depends on the antioxidants we get from our food.
The foods we eat, particularly plant foods, have nutrients and molecules that neutralize free radicals/ oxidants so they stop causing damage to our bodies from the inside. These nutrients and molecules are called antioxidants (anti=against, another name for a free radicals is an oxidant; thus anti-oxidants fight against oxidants). We get the best antioxidants from plant foods (fruits and vegetables). This is because, in addition to known antioxidants such as Vitamins C, E and beta-carotene, many plants also contain phytochemicals that, although we don’t exactly know what they do or how they work, clearly function as antioxidants or make the antioxidants work better to clean up free radicals. People also get antioxidants from supplements, although the supplements provide less variety and lack the phytochemicals we get from eating a healthy diet (not referring to “dieting”) with lots of plant foods.
Free radicals not only cause damage on a microscopic level to our cells and molecules, over time the damage contributes to impairing organs and/or developing diseases such as heart disease or cancers. Free radicals also cause our bodies to break down faster, in other words, contribute to how quickly our bodies age. The good news is the way we eat can offset the damage done by these waste molecules and help our bodies heal a bit from the damage done. Unhealthy diets with excessive fats, beef, pork and unhealthy habits such as smoking might cause your body to produce more damaging free radicals. A diet with a lot of plant foods and moderate amounts of healthy fats and proteins, that provides the nutrients, minerals and antioxidants you need, will balance out the natural processes in your body and keep the free radicals under control.
With a better understanding of antioxidants and what they do in our bodies, you are able to make better choices about the foods and supplements often marketed as being rich in antioxidants. Some fruits or vegetables naturally contain high amounts of antioxidants and phytochemicals that can help your body. Many supplements also are formulated to have a lot of antioxidants. However, supplements are meant to supplement – to support and make up for any lack in your diet. Do your best to get your nutrients from natural sources first, and my suggestion is to use supplements as a secondary measure when necessary but do not depend on them for your nutrients. A healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables impacts our bodies down to a molecular level in ways science hasn’t caught up with yet. Let’s make the best use of what we know to work with our magnificent bodies and not against them.
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