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Antioxidants - nature's little helpers

Antioxidants play a vital role in the body to protect against the degeneration of cells. Research suggests that antioxidants help to protect against cancer, stroke and heart disease. They may also help to delay the ageing process, reduce the formation of 'bad' LDL cholesterol and prevent the formation of cataracts.

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Putting out fires

So how do antioxidants work? Think of them as fire-fighters, putting out the fires created by unstable particles, called free radicals.

A free radical is an atom in the body that is damaged and missing one or more electrons, making it unstable. Free radicals roam around, searching for other atoms from which to steal electrons. When a stable atom has an electron stolen, it in turn becomes an unstable free radical. This starts a chain-reaction of electron-stealing throughout the body.

In come the fire-fighters, in the form of free radical scavengers. These atoms have extra electrons that they donate to free radicals, stopping the chain reaction. Antioxidants are a major source of free radical scavengers.

Free radicals can damage mitochondria (the energy powerhouse of a cell), rupture cell membranes and damage DNA, thereby altering or destroying cell function.

The body can normally cope with low levels of free radicals but high levels may initiate or contribute to premature ageing, atherosclerosis (a disease of the arteries) and heart disease, cancer, cataracts, arthritis, infertility in men and other degenerative diseases.

While oxygen is essential to life, it can also damage cells. The chemical process that occurs when oxygen damages cells is called oxidisation and it is this process that creates free radicals.

You can see oxidisation in action in your kitchen when fats become rancid or the flesh of an apple turns brown. This process is occurring in your body too.

Oxygen is not the only substance that causes oxidisation. These also contribute to the process:

  • Environmental pollution

  • Cigarette smoke

  • X-rays or radiation

  • Sunlight

Considering that all of these factors are frequently present in our contemporary way of life, it is virtually impossible to prevent the production of free radicals in our bodies. What we can do, however, is top up our levels of antioxidants to combat the activity of free radicals and therefore prevent disease. However, antioxidants cannot prevent disease alone: hereditary and other factors may be present that contribute to the development of disease.

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