Scientific research in recent years has identified several antioxidant vitamins - an added bonus for nutrients already known to be essential to good health, and a partial explanation for how they interact with other molecules in the body to produce beneficial effects. A textbook discussion of Vitamin A 15 years ago would have described the nutrient's role in vision, health of skin and other body linings, bone growth, cancer prevention, and immunity. Today, it would also mention that Vitamin A is an antioxidant, a molecule that protects body tissues from damage by free radicals (oxygen-containing molecules that can react with healthy tissues and cause damage and disease).
The vitamins most often added to antioxidant supplements typically include Vitamins A, C, and E. In addition to being crucial to specific body processes and to the health of certain tissues, these vitamins protect us against cardiovascular diseases, cancer, vision problems, infections, nervous disorders, and some of the physical effects of aging by virtue of their antioxidant activity. Antioxidant vitamins are often combined with other antioxidant nutrients to provide a broad range of protection.
As mentioned above, vitamin A has many important roles in good health. It is one of the fat soluble antioxidant vitamins, obtained in yellow, orange and green vegetables and in fortified milk. Vitamin A deficiency is serious and life threatening in the malnourished. It is readily available; however, when it is included in an antioxidant dietary supplement, only moderate amounts are used because too much Vitamin A is dangerously toxic. Creams and lotions containing Vitamin A may be beneficial to skin health, a theory that has lead to topical antioxidant supplements containing this vitamin.
Vitamin E is the second of the prominent antioxidant vitamins, and its antioxidant benefits have been known for some time. In the body, Vitamin E prevents damage to linings and cell membranes, and blocks oxidation of fats, particularly in the lungs where oxygen is present in copious amounts. It has been suggested that it may protect against heart disease, cancer, cataracts, age related macular degeneration, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's, although studies have been somewhat inconclusive and some have used an antioxidant dietary supplement while others have studied food sources. Toxicity from too much Vitamin E is rare and it is safely included in many antioxidant supplements as well as skin creams and lotions. In the diet, Vitamin E is found in green plants, nuts, whole grains and wheat germ.
Of the three best known antioxidant vitamins, Vitamin C is the only one that is water soluble. Where Vitamin E prevents oxidation of fats, Vitamin C prevents oxidation of water soluble substances in the body. Vitamin C plays a role in health of connective tissues, particularly collagen, strengthens immunity, assists with iron absorption, and functions in the release of stress hormones. Vitamin C is abundant in citrus fruits and in other fresh fruits and vegetables. Research suggests that most people get enough Vitamin C from the diet and do not require antioxidant supplements that contain it; however, large doses of Vitamin C are well tolerated and toxic effects are rare at daily intakes under 1000mg. A typical antioxidant dietary supplement will contain an amount of Vitamin C well above the recommended daily allowance.
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