Antioxidants vs Free Radicals

How exactly do antioxidants help fight the effects of free radicals?

The benefits of antioxidants have been marketed far and wide but sometimes, it sounds too good to be true, almost miraculous even. However, how much of that is just marketing and how can the addition of antioxidants into our lifestyle help?

To find out more, we speak to Pharmacist Widiayanna A. Rahim or better known as Puan Widia, from Farmasi Saujana in Kajang who aims to educate the community on antioxidants and their role in the fight against free radicals.

1Twenty80: Firstly, what are free radicals?

Widiayanna A. Rahim:

Free radicals are molecules that form when atoms or molecules gain or lose electrons. These radicals are unstable and highly reactive. They are derived either from our normal essential metabolic processes or from external sources such as exposure to X-rays, ozone, cigarette smoke, air pollutants and industrial chemicals.

Free radicals are capable of damaging biologically relevant molecules such as our DNA, proteins, carbohydrates and lipids. They attack important macromolecules leading to cell damage and homeostatic disruption, through a process called oxidative stress.

1Twenty80: What are antioxidants and how do they work?

Puan Widia:

Antioxidants are molecules stable enough to donate an electron to free radicals and neutralise it, thus reducing its capacity to damage. Antioxidants are so unique that they can donate an electron without becoming reactive free radicals themselves. Some antioxidants including glutathione, ubiquinol and uric acid are produced during normal metabolism in the body. Other lighter antioxidants are found in our diet, as our body cannot manufacture them. These micronutrients (vitamins) antioxidants are Vitamin E (α-tocopherol), Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), β-carotene (beta carotene) and other plant estrogens called phytoestrogens.

These antioxidants delay or inhibit cellular damage mainly through their free radicals scavenging property. They safely interact with free radicals and terminate the chain reaction before vital molecules are damaged.

Quote: Antioxidants are so unique that they can donate an electron without becoming reactive free radicals themselves.

1Twenty80: How do they benefit our health?

Puan Widia:

Antioxidants act at different levels of defense system in our body:

  1. The first line of defense are the preventive antioxidants, which suppresses the formation of free radicals.
  2. The second line of defense are antioxidants that scavenge active radicals to suppress chain initiation and/or break the chain propagation reactions.

There are a wide range of antioxidants found in nature, and because they are so varied, different antioxidants provide benefits to different parts of the body. For example, β-carotene (and other carotenoids) is very beneficial to eye health, flavonoids are especially beneficial for heart health, whereas proanthocyanidins are beneficial for urinary tract health.

Quote: Antioxidants help fight free radical damage and maintain healthy skin.

1Twenty80: What kind of ailments can benefit from antioxidants?

Puan Widia:

Free radicals play major roles in the development of chronic and degenerative illnesses. This includes cancer, autoimmune disorders, ageing, cataract, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease. Research has indicated that intake of antioxidants is believed to reduce these roles.

For example, β-carotene a fat soluble member of carotenoids is converted to retinol, a strong antioxidant, is extremely beneficial for vision.

1Twenty80: How can antioxidants help boost our skin health?

Puan Widia:

Antioxidants help fight free radical damage and maintain healthy skin. When skin is exposed to high levels of ultraviolet light, photo-oxidative damage is induced by the formation of different types of reactive species of oxygen. These forms of reactive oxygen damage cellular lipids, protein and DNA, and they are considered to be the primary contributors of sunburn, premature ageing of the skin, photodermatoses and skin cancers.

Nowadays in our modern world, in addition to applying topical skin care products, many people have turn to supplementing nutrients that are missing in their diets, also known as ‘Inside-Out’ approach to skin care.

1Twenty80: Is it better to get our dose of antioxidants from our food or from supplements?

Puan Widia:

Antioxidant supplements, which contain only one type of antioxidant can be found in abundance in various stores. However, it’s important to realise that these phytochemicals seldom work in isolation. Rather, a collection of antioxidants are needed to influence a given physiological process. Antioxidants seems to work best when they’re consumed in their natural whole food state or as part of a diet containing fruits and vegetables. However, these types of antioxidant supplements can be useful in people with certain needs, or have certain medical conditions that require a particular dose of antioxidant supplement. If you’re currently taking supplements containing antioxidants, you should not be worried as the doses of commercially available antioxidant supplements are usually much smaller than the values mentioned in the above studies.

1Twenty80: What are good food sources of antioxidants?

Puan Widia:

To assess which foods have the highest antioxidant content, you can check out its Total-ORAC Score. Different fruits and vegetables will have different Total-ORAC Score.

For example, different species of apples have different ORAC Values. Red Delicious apples have Total-ORAC Value of 4275, whereas it’s only 2670 for Golden Delicious apples. Generally speaking, the deeper or darker the color of a fruit or vegetable skin, the greater its antioxidant value. To determine which fruit or vegetable is the best source of antioxidants, I encourage you to check out the ORAC Report.

1Twenty80: Can you have ‘too much’ when it comes to antioxidants?

Puan Widia:

Moderation is always the key when it comes to taking antioxidants. Several recent large clinical trials using high doses of antioxidant supplements have yielded disappointing and controversial results including higher rate of cancer incidences. This is mainly because antioxidants can act as pro-oxidants at a very high dose, meaning they can actually induce oxidative stress.

1Twenty80: What is your advice to our readers on being proactive when it comes to their health?

Puan Widia:

In Malaysia, our healthcare system is very much improved and readily accessible at almost every level of our socio-economic population and this includes rural areas. However the government has spent nearly RM 52 billion a year in total healthcare expenditure, and most of it goes to treating preventable diseases like hypertension and diabetes.

In addition to spending that much in the healthcare sector, studies have suggested that unhealthy employees greatly affect a company’s achievements and of course in the end will affect our country’s development.

As our nation’s literacy rates improve and health information is readily available at our fingertips, I believe it is time that we take full charge of our health. By saying so, a healthy lifestyle not only comprises of a healthier food selection, a more active and sports oriented lifestyle should be adopted as a culture, especially in our modern world where people prefer to stick to their gadgets than being out and about and get sweaty.

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