To appreciate the possible benefits of antioxidants, you must first understand what an antioxidant is. An antioxidant is anything that slows down or stops oxidation, a chemical reaction involving the uptake of oxygen. For example, the rusting of iron is an oxidation process that results in oxygen being taken from the atmosphere and combined with other elements to form something new. In the context of human cells, many metabolic processes use oxygen and result in the release of new oxygen-containing molecules, such as hydrogen peroxide, that can subsequently damage cells and body tissues and cause disease. An antioxidant is anything that mops up these oxygen-containing "free radicals" and removes them before they can do any damage.
Antioxidants benefits that are being celebrated in popular culture and widely studied in scientific research are those associated with certain diseases. Free radicals are thought to play an important role in the development of heart disease, cancer, physical changes associated with aging, and other health problems. Attention is largely focused on identifying food sources of antioxidants and determining whether the benefits of antioxidants can be increased by supplements containing particular antioxidant molecules.
It turns out that anyone who has used vitamin and mineral supplements has already enjoyed antioxidants benefits without knowing anything about it - a number of the common vitamins and minerals are antioxidants and this characteristic is a large part of their demonstrated contribution to good health. Vitamins that have been particularly noted for their antioxidant properties include Vitamins A, C, and E. Zinc, selenium and calcium are some of the antioxidant minerals. Other common dietary sources of antioxidants include carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene and others), bioflavinoids and related compounds, phenolic acids and related compounds, and various other molecules. The benefits of antioxidants can be obtained from some hormones as well.
Among the identified and suggested antioxidants benefits are protection against cancer, good eye health with prevention of degenerative eye diseases such as age related macular degeneration, protection of the central nervous system, a stronger immune system, and cardiovascular health with increased protection against heart attacks and strokes. These benefits of antioxidants, however, are obtained by including a wide range of different healthy foods in the diet, rather than by taking high doses of one or two specific antioxidants. High doses of antioxidants, in fact, may do more harm than good.
If you want to enjoy the benefits of antioxidants, the best approach is probably the traditional one: eat a healthy diet rich in plant sources and combine this with a healthy active lifestyle. If you suspect that your diet is not what it should be, you might want to add a multivitamin and mineral supplement containing moderate and safe amounts of a variety of antioxidants. Discuss particular heath problems with your doctor.
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