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Natural Antioxidants and their Health Benefits

Some of the most common vitamins and minerals have in the past few decades became better known as powerful antioxidants. Scientists continue investigating their anti-oxidative properties to better understand whether such vitamins and minerals can really prevent chronic illnesses or moderate their intensity and evidence is growing all the time. Some highly distinguished researchers now recommend diets deliberately high in antioxidants to help the body to get rid of free radicals. Common conditions, that some vitamins and minerals with antioxidant properties may prevent or weaken effects of, include diabetes, elevated blood pressure and resulting heart disease and even certain types of cancer.

How Antioxidants Work

Some free radicals in the body arise naturally during the normal breakdown of food or the body’s immune system’s cells purposefully create them to fight infections, while some are produced due to environmental factors including radiation, cigarette smoke and pollution. Radicals are chemically reactive molecules that have been stripped of an electron. When the free radical attacks the nearest stable molecule to fill its electron deficiency by grabbing its electron, oxidation (i.e. burning) occurs. Free radicals kill bacteria and viruses, fight inflammation and keep the smooth muscles well-toned so that they can regulate the organs and blood vessels. But when there are too many free radicals circulating in the body, some of them steal electrons from places where the electron should stay, such as the genetic DNA material in a cell.

The negative impact of excessive free radical formation on our body ranges from cosmetic to life-threatening. Free radicals can damage skin tissue, making the skin look years older. They can also hurt the lenses of the eyes, causing cataracts. And they can make it much harder for our cells to repair themselves, raising the risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease and an array of various other chronic diseases.

Antioxidants bind excess free radicals before they can cause damage to the tissues. Although the body contains its own antioxidants, these are often outnumbered by free radicals that assault the body daily from various external sources, such as air pollution, cigarette smoke, electromagnetic fields, too much sun as well as stress and high-fat diets. Scientists have already proven that antioxidants can protect cells from the negative effects of free radicals, but the ability of antioxidants to fend off chronic disease remains yet to be confirmed.

What Some of the Best Known Antioxidants May Do

Beta-carotene is a “provitamin A”, which means the same as a precursor to vitamin A (inactive). It is an orange pigment found in many plants, abundant mainly in carrots, sweet potatoes and pumpkins. Its antioxidant properties have been known for at least two decades. In the laboratory tests, beta-carotene has shown promise in preventing cancers of the lungs, breasts, cervix and stomach.

Vitamin C strengthens the immune system by enabling the body to synthetize white blood cells, which are needed to break down bacteria and fight infections. Moreover, some researchers suggest that vitamin C should be added to meat to prevent conversion of nitrates and nitrites into cancer-causing compounds called nitrosamines. Some studies show that vitamin C may also protect against cancers of the cervix, breast and gastrointestinal system. However, despite general belief no absolute proof exists that taking extra doses of vitamin C helps prevent and relieve common colds and sore throats.

Vitamin E is highly valued for its ability to lower the risk of heart disease, a major cause of death in most westernized countries. It does so by reducing the build-up of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) inside blood vessels. Studies suggest that vitamin E may also help prevent colon and prostate cancers.

Selenium – this trace element is a part of selenoproteins that are believed to protect against oxidative stress and it is present in food (mostly seafood, poultry, meat and grain) and water. The amount of selenium that any particular food contains depends on its levels in the soil in which the plant, used to make the food or feed the animal, was grown or through which the water flowed. Selenium is believed to reduce the risk of prostate cancer but at the same time it is suspected of increasing the risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancer.

Glutathione is a substance biosynthesized in the body from amino acids that acts as one of the body’s chief antioxidants. Its role is to protect certain components of the cell from oxidative damage caused by free radicals and peroxides. Glutathione can be found in plants, animals, bacteria and fungi. Glutathione is used in medicine to prevent poisonous side effects of chemotherapy treatment, to treat male infertility and to improve blood flow and reduce blood clotting in patients with heart disease and diabetes.

Zinc is credited with the ability to protect the body from oxidative stress. Although the scientific evidence for the anti-oxidative benefits of zinc is compelling, its mechanism remains yet unclear. Recent studies indicate that zinc supplementation may prevent formation of free radicals in the body by activating the antioxidant system.