Q & A Library
What's So Special About Antioxidants?
Can you explain exactly what antioxidants are and why they're so important?
Answer (Published 3/13/2009)
Antioxidants are micronutrients that protect tissues in the body. They do this by blocking harmful chemical reactions caused by oxidation, which is the destructive effect of oxygen (and other oxidizing agents) on the molecular components of our cells. Just as oxygen can cause metals to rust and corrode, it can pull electrons from organic molecules rendering them defective and useless. Also to be reckoned with are free radicals, electronically unstable atoms or molecules generated in the course of normal metabolism that also strip electrons from other molecules, causing chain reactions of oxidative damage. Cumulative damage of this sort probably accounts for many of the degenerative changes of aging and for a lot of age-related disease.
Antioxidants block oxidation reactions and offer protection to the membranes and other parts of cells. Vitamins C and E are capable of "quenching" free radicals by donating electrons to them. Other micronutrients that act as antioxidants are the mineral selenium and pigments called carotenoids. These include beta-carotene in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables; lycopene in tomatoes, watermelon, papaya and pink grapefruit; anthocyanins in blueberries and other blue and purple fruits and vegetables; and lutein, zeaxanthin and other carotenoids found in carrots and leafy greens. Green tea provides important antioxidants called catechins, and red wine contains resveratrol, an antioxidant from the skin of grapes. Chocolate contains similar compounds (polyphenols) to those in red wine and green tea.
We need dietary antioxidants every day. As insurance against any shortage, I recommend taking a daily supplement to give you a steady supply of these protective compounds. My general antioxidant recommendation includes the following:
Be sure to take supplements with meals to enhance absorption and reduce the risk of stomach upset.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
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