We hear a lot about how antioxidants are great and we should find ways to eat them any way and anywhere we can. But what does “antioxidant” even mean?
Perhaps the better questions is: why are oxidants so bad in the first place?
Oxidants are normal by-products of regular metabolism. As you break down food for energy and go about your life – what you're doing right now as you read this article – you are making oxidants.
But oxidants carry around an unpaired, or “free” electron and because of this electron, they have a negative charge and are sometimes also called “free radicals.”
The body is happy when, on the whole, these negative charges pair off with positive ones and become neutral. In some cases though, the free radicals don’t get paired, and the negative charge hanging around is like the single guy at the party aggressively hitting on everyone’s girlfriend.
It’s the free electron that does the damage.
In some cases the damage has a purpose. One of the ways your immune system fights invaders and gets rid of damaged tissues is to produce free radicals that are powerfully destructive.
Too many free radicals floating around however, and these highly reactive entities damage the healthy parts of your body they come in contact with.
When free radicals come into contact with DNA, they can damage it, even causing mutations that lead to cancer. Free radicals also play a role in heart disease, stroke, arthritis, alcoholic liver damage and even the aging process.
Luckily, your body has a built-in defense system of antioxidants, which are molecules that scavenge and neutralize oxidants and often turn them into harmless oxygen and water.
Examples of antioxidants include special enzymes that live in cells, as well as Vitamin E, beta-carotene, Vitamin C, and glutathione – all of these molecules and a number of others soak up free radicals.
When, you have a chronic disease like diabetes, or the wear and tear on your body is high from trauma (think a wound or an ACL tear) or overuse (think tennis elbow), your immune system is activated and you have lots of oxidants being made as part of the healing process. Cigarette smoking and alcohol are also examples of toxic stresses that rev up your immune system.
The free radicals your built-in pool of antioxidants can’t keep up with then fly around and damage whatever falls in their path.
So, this is why we care so much about antioxidants! You can find them in many foods, including: