Antioxidants and Free Radicals
Free radicals are highly reactive compounds that are created in the body during normal
metabolic functions or introduced from the environment. Free radicals are inherently unstable,
since they contain “extra” energy. To reduce their energy load, free radicals
react with certain chemicals in the body, and in the process, interfere with the cells’
ability to function normally. Antioxidants work in several ways: they may reduce the energy of
the free radical, stop the free radical from forming in the first place, or interrupt an
oxidizing chain reaction to minimize the damage caused by free radicals.
Free radicals are believed to play a role in more than sixty different health conditions,
including the aging process, cancer, and atherosclerosis.1 Reducing exposure to
free radicals and increasing intake of antioxidant nutrients has the potential to reduce the
risk of free radical-related health problems.
Oxygen, although essential to life, is the source of the potentially damaging free
radicals. Free radicals are also found in the environment. Environmental sources of free
radicals include exposure to ionizing radiation (from industry, sun exposure, cosmic rays, and
medical X-rays), ozone and nitrous oxide (primarily from automobile exhaust), heavy metals
(such as mercury, cadmium, and lead), cigarette smoke (both active and passive), alcohol,
unsaturated fat, and other chemicals and compounds from food, water, and air.
The body produces several antioxidant enzymes, including superoxide dismutase (SOD),
catalase, and glutathione peroxidase, that neutralize many types of free radicals. Supplements
of these enzymes are available for oral administration. However, their absorption is probably
minimal at best. Supplementing with the “building blocks” the body requires to
make SOD, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase may be more effective. These building block
nutrients include the minerals manganese, zinc, and copper for SOD and selenium for glutathione peroxidase.
In addition to enzymes, many vitamins and minerals act as antioxidants in their own right,
such as vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, lutein,
lycopene, vitamin B2, coenzyme Q10, and cysteine (an amino acid). Herbs, such as bilberry,
turmeric (curcumin), grape seed or pine
bark extracts, and ginkgo can also provide
powerful antioxidant protection for the body.
Consuming a wide variety of antioxidant enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and herbs may be the
best way to provide the body with the most complete protection against free radical