So Antioxidants… who are they, why are they and what exactly are antioxidants… a guide for complete idiots.
It costs a little bit more… but guys, it’s packed with antioxidants! Amazing.
But just, one question. What exactly are antioxidants? Like exactly.
Magic invisible fruit warrior… I’m guessing… beads of some sort of super-vitamin? Whatever the opposite of cancer is? Health fairies?!?
Antioxidants can prevent or repair damage done to our cells by chemical reactions involving oxygen with other molecules.
Which raises the massive issue of… oxygen damages our cells?!?
Should we all stop breathing? Is the Daily Mail right that literally every thing causes cancer?
Well, if you’ve been holding your breath. Breathe!
As almost every living thing on this planet will tell you, oxygen is essential for life.
However, life is a messy thing and ultimately it’s all about the chemistry.
So let’s go back to school for a moment.
Do You Remember What An Atom Is?
Like, I know you know. You definitely used to know. Double chemistry, GCSE duel award sciences. Dave Willis tried to set Andrew Thompson’s blazer on fire with a Bunsen burner, but the sleeve just melted a bit. Now he works for Foxtons.
But do you remember the bit about atoms? Other than the fact that they’re really small and everything is made from them?
An atom is the smallest unit of a chemical element.
Chemical elements are the things in the periodic table. The substances out of which everything in the universe is made.
Stick one or more atoms together and you’ve got a molecule. Keep combining atoms and molecules of the various different chemical elements in various combinations and you can make anything in the entire universe – from planets to pianos to penguins to pepperoni.
They are the building blocks of well… stuff.
Do You Remember What An Electron Is?
But what are the building blocks of the building blocks?
Atoms are made of a relatively-heavy central bit called a nucleus, surrounded by a cloud of even smaller moving particles called electrons. Like 15-year-old Ukrainian models at fashion week, electrons have almost no mass and are negatively charged.
The central nucleus is made from tiny particles called protons and neutrons.
Protons and neutrons have almost the same mass, but protons are positively charged and neutrons are neither positively nor negatively charged… they’re neutral. Which probably guessed.
So the number of protons in an atom’s nucleus determines what type of element that atom will be.
For example, if an atom has just one proton in its nucleus then it’s an atom of hydrogen, if it has two protons it is a helium atom, if it has three protons it is a lithium atom.
Oxygen happens to have eight protons, but if it had just one more proton it wouldn’t be oxygen anymore it would be fluorine.
What Does The Structure Of An Atom Have To Do With Explaining What Exactly Are Antioxidants?
It’s all about the electrons.
Although messing about with the number of protons would completely change one atom into another type of atom, atoms gain and lose electrons all the time.
In fact, a lot of chemistry has to do with atoms or molecules gaining or losing electrons and what happens when they do.
So what does happen?
When an atom or a molecule loses an electron we say that is has been oxidised.
Which might give you a clue about where exactly antioxidants start fitting into all of this. But before we can understand what exactly are antioxidants, we need to understand a little bit more about oxidation.
So a reaction in which a substance loses an electron is an oxidation reaction.
But when an atom or a molecule gains an electron we say it has been reduced or undergone a reduction reaction.
I know it’s counter-intuitive that losing electrons is oxidation while gaining electrons is reduction, but the terms are older than the discovery of electrons.
In the old days ‘oxidation’ was understood to refer to a molecule simply gaining or losing an oxygen atom. The terms have stuck around, but our understanding of what’s actually happening has become more refined.
Often if one thing is being oxidised (losing electrons), then something else is getting reduced (gaining electrons) – which is why we often talk about redox reactions (reduction-oxidation reactions).
After all, those little lost electrons have got to somewhere.
And one molecule’s loss, is another molecule’s gain.
But what if you don’t want any of this redox reacting shuffling electrons back and forth? Then you need something that can prevent oxidation… some sort of stop-oxidant, no-oxidant, I-would-prefer-if-you-didn’t-oxidant… some sort of antioxidant!
An antioxidant prevents oxidation… the loss of electrons.
But what’s so bad about oxidation?
Oxidation isn’t bad. Neither is reduction.
In fact, without reduction and oxidation there would be no life on this planet.
Respiration – the process that lets our cells release the energy we need for life from nutrients we’ve consumed – occurs through a series of reduction and oxidation reactions.
So you know what exactly are antioxidants… but do why do actually need antioxidants?
Don’t chuck that orange out just yet. Antioxidants are vital to our health.
While redox reactions in our cells are necessary for our general not dying, there can be unfortunate side-effects of all that shuffling about of electrons.
And it’s for the same reason you haven’t got round to deleted Tinder off your phone.
Those electrons circling the nucleus of the an atom would prefer to be in pairs.
When a negatively-charged outer electron of an atom is unpaired… left all on its lonesome, far away from the pull of the positively-charged nucleus… it is single and ready to mingle.
And by mingle we mean react chemically.
We call these atoms or molecules with unpaired outer-shell electrons free radicals
Yes. That’s what a free radical means. Not only does this article explain what exactly are antioxidants, you get to find out what a free radical is.
Free radicals are often highly chemically reactive.
So is that a problem? Are free radicals the baddies?
It can be a problem. But then again, our bodies also use free radicals in many important processes including chemical signalling between cells and in certain immune-system responses.
The problem is caused when free radicals react with the membranes of cells or even with the DNA inside of our cells, which can cause damage to the cells themselves or even cell death.
So the Daily Mail is right… everything causes cancer? Even breathing.
Well kind of yeah. Scientists have speculated that aging itself may in part by caused by the cumulative effects of damage done to our cells by free radicals, which are the by-products of the same metabolic processes that keep us alive. The ultimate Catch-22.
But environmental and lifestyle factors, like cigarette smoke and air pollution, can also introduce potentially harmful free radicals into our bodies, which will speed up what nature is already doing slowly.
Which probably isn’t making you feel better. So is there anything we can do about it?
Eat an apple!
Vitamin C, Vitamin E, carotenoids (like beta-carotene) and other essential dietary nutrients all have antioxidant properties.
Now you know what exactly are antioxidants, you hopefully can see they’re nothing new! They have an important role to play in keeping cells healthy, but they’re available to us from as range of dietary sources.
You do not need to shell out for exotic or expensive products. Pretty much any fresh fruit and veg will have the same effects, as their more glamorous superfood counterparts.
Although the jury is still out as to whether or not supplements containing antioxidants are actually beneficial in promoting good health, our bodies do use the antioxidant properties of what we eat to offset the damage caused to our cells by free radicals.
By eating a balanced diet, high in fruit and vegetables, and keeping physically active to the best of our abilities, we can take responsibility for the parts of health that are actually under our control.
Since the part of our health actually under our control is just a tiny little tip of a massive iceberg of other factors way beyond our control, taking responsibility for what can, puts us in a stronger position to handle the parts of our health that are not under our control.
Making good choices and avoiding bad ones, means that when do inevitably get sick, age and confront our own mortality, we do it having taken good care of the body we were born with.
So now you know what exactly are antioxidants, what next?
Research into the uses of antioxidants in the body ongoing.
We are only just beginning to understand in detail some of the chemical processes that underlie health and aging.
The body is complicated and different systems interact in ways that we do not see in the controlled environment of a test tube in lab.
The chemistry of that underlies life is gloriously haphazard.
Even if the progress is fast, advances in the way we understand health and biology are made in tiny little steps, some forward some back some pirouetting.
People with products to sell work in leaps.
Antioxidant makes a great bit of copy to put on the front of a bottle of juice, but remember you can drink the juice without swallowing wellness-marketing kool aide.