What are Antioxidants?

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Natural Insight

What are Antioxidants?

By Sabeen Faquir

Antioxidants are the natural residue of unicorns, what rainbows are made of and what the Easter Bunny brought you this year. Ok, so that’s not true. But, it seems, pop culture has only provided us with a limited view of the chemistry, mechanisms and variety of antioxidants.

To understand antioxidants, we should first know oxidation. In my experience, oxidation is defined in two ways. One definition is for biologists: the process or result of oxidizing or being oxidized. The other is for chemists: any chemical reaction that involves the donation of electrons (a “redox reaction”). These definitions are like different sides of the same coin. But, the biological definition may be misleading. An oxidation reaction need not require the oxygen molecule.

Animal biochemistry is, in part, governed by redox reactions. The problem with oxidation, however, is the formation of free radicals, another term that has reached the ears of consumers without clear definition. Does the sudden awareness and simultaneous clueless-ness of gluten, a decade ago, ring any bells?

Free radicals are highly reactive, short-lived, uncharged molecules with an unpaired valence electron – essentially an extra electron that throws the molecule off-keel. Such a molecule is normally found within a physiological balance in any animal. But, according to researchers, “If free radicals overwhelm the body’s ability to regulate them, a condition known as oxidative stress ensues,” (Lobo et al., 2010). Imagine these free radicals as tiny needles or knives that stab flesh with their unpaired electron.

In fact, they are known to damage nucleic acids, proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids – so, every type of biological molecule (Lobo et al., 2010). Some researchers conjecture that because damage from free-radicals accumulates with age, oxidation causes aging. Free-radical damage is also associated with inflammatory conditions.

So, how do an antioxidants work? Well, ANTI-oxidants block the transfer of electrons in a redox reaction. This month, I leave you with this teaser. More on antioxidants to come.

Disclaimer: The content of this article is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure disease.

V. Lobo, A. Patil, A. Phatak, N. Chandra. Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacognosy Review. 2010 Jul-Dec; 4(8): 118–126.