Antioxidants: What Are They?
In recent weeks, I have been reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. I have always been drawn to naturalist-type thinking, and Palmer hits many such notes with great support. One of the central points of his book is to eat real food, as opposed to the processed, refined, scientifically concocted products that flood supermarket aisles. Consequently, Pollan says we should eat more plants.
Today I read a section about ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), which is a member of the antioxidant family. Benefits of the antioxidant to the human body are thought to be numerous, and one of these is the ability to break down free-radicals, which are strongly related to heart disease and cancer.
Okay, so there are benefits to ingesting antioxidants. What are antioxidants, you ask? Antioxidants are chemical compounds which, as their name implies, are against oxidants. Oxidation is the process in which a compound loses an electron to another compound (the oxidant), and antioxidants prevent this from getting out of control.1 Antioxidants work to slow or stop oxidants from gaining electrons. Interestingly, as in the case of ascorbic acid, antioxidants sometimes are oxidants themselves – they absorb the free electrons before other potential oxidants can.
Free-radicals, on the other hand, are so named because they have extra or “free” electrons in their molecular bodies. They tend to give electrons, and are called reductants (the opposite of oxidants). The oxidation of free-radicals is known to be especially reactive (”radical”) with lipids, proteins, and DNA (the oxidants).
So antioxidants work to prevent the oxidation of free-radicals, either by stealing electrons from them or by some other means. Since cancers are most often the result of damaged DNA, which the highly reactive oxidation of free-radicals can be responsible for, antioxidants have a great potential to curb cancer rates. Modern research suggests that a diet is anti-cancer if it is full of antioxidants.
So where can we find these antioxidants? They are found in everything grown, especially in the photosynthesizing leaves of a plant.
Plants all depend on photosynthesis, and thus produce oxygen. Apart from pure breathable oxygen, other Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) are also produced. These ROS, including free-radicals of oxygen, have a role in plantlife also, but too many free-radicals can easily damage the plant. To control the levels of free-radicals, they build antioxidants.
It’s key to understand that antioxidants aren’t all the same – each plant has slightly different sets of antioxidants to handle its specific needs. Thus a variety of plants in the human diet is very beneficial – different antioxidants neutralize or protect from different free-radicals in our bodies too.
Apparently primate ancestors of humans generated their own ascorbic acid, until they underwent a mutation which eliminated this function.2 Since plants were already producing large quantities of antioxidants, and primates were eating plants (or eating animals who were eating plants), there was no need to internally generate ascorbic acid.
So here we are, needing to eat plants.
Some curious questions in my mind: “Is it possible to again generate ascorbic acid and other antioxidants in human bodies? Can we change our genes, or must we wait for mutation to occur? Must genetic mutation be random? Can an individual person change his or her genetic makeup?” These are questions which deserve their own inquisition, which I intend to address in a future post (Can We Change Our DNA Naturally?).