“Antioxidant” is a popular word. However, what the word exactly means, is not clear to everyone. In this article I will tell you what an antioxidant exactly is. There are many chemical terms used in this article. Unfortunately, we cannot avoid them if we really want to understand what antioxidants are. But! After reading this text you will forever know what an antioxidant is. And you will no longer be fooled by labels and articles where the word “antioxidant” is used without further explanation. Do antioxidant supplements make sense? After reading this article you will be able to decide for yourself.
To understand what an antioxidant is, you must first understand what a free radical is. Free radicals are sometimes formed in the body during normal metabolic processes, for example after exercise. They can also enter the body from outside, for instance because of exposure to radiation (sun, X-rays), environmental pollution, smoking, consumption of harmful food and alcohol.
A free radical is an atom (or group of atoms) with at least one unpaired electron in its outermost shell. Electrons without a pair are unstable and highly reactive. A free radical “steals” an electron from a neighbouring molecule, and as a result, a new free radical is formed. This new radical then “steals” another electron from yet another molecule. A chain reaction occurs which, if not controlled by the antioxidant defence system, can lead to oxidative damage. Free radicals play an essential role in damaging vital biological systems. They are considered responsible for the aging process and the occurrence of many diseases.
Definition of antioxidant
An oxidant is a chemical compound that oxidizes other compounds.
Oxidative stress occurs when the production of oxidants and free radicals exceeds the body’s ability to neutralize them.
An antioxidant is any substance that significantly slows down oxidation. This is the common name for all elements of the so-called antioxidant defence system, which is responsible for protecting cells from oxidative stress.
The antioxidant defence system
A free radical attack can damage cell membranes (the structures that separate the contents of a cell from the outside environment) and thereby hinder the transport of substances to and from cells. Free radicals can also damage DNA, RNA and proteins, contributing to the onset and development of diseases. By donating one of their electrons, antioxidants can neutralize free radicals and stop the chain reaction.
Under normal circumstances, the antioxidant defence system in the human body easily copes with free radicals. The body makes several antioxidant enzymes (enzymes are substances that can cause specific chemical reactions inside or outside the cell) that neutralize free radicals. The correct functioning of these enzymes depends on the minerals selenium, copper, manganese and zinc. In addition, the body uses vitamins that can act as antioxidants on their own: vitamin C, vitamin E and vitamin B2. All the above-mentioned minerals and vitamins are part of the so-called primary antioxidant defence system. For optimal functioning of the antioxidant system, a daily intake of all the above-mentioned elements from your diet is necessary!
Do antioxidant supplements make sense?
Just the quantity of antioxidants (in a supplement or a food) says nothing about the health benefits. Antioxidants tend to work synergistically (that is, together) with other substances. That’s why it’s better to get them from a variety of foods rather than from a jar labelled “antioxidants.”
In addition to the vitamins and minerals mentioned above, polyphenols (the chemical compounds in plants) exhibit antioxidant properties. For example, the polyphenols lycopene and beta-carotene (both of which belong to the category of carotenoids) have been extensively studied and their antioxidant effect is well proven. This is not (yet) the case for hundreds (or probably thousands) of other polyphenols. The problem with research into the properties of polyphenols is that if a substance shows an antioxidant effect in a lab, that does not mean that the same effect will occur in the human body. Nutrients that we ingest through food often work together in our bodies, and not solo. That is why the best advice (which I am sure you’ve heard already, but repetition can’t harm in this case) is: eat a varied diet and eat different types of fruits and vegetables every day.