The Menace of Radicals

We all know that we need oxygen to live. But research has now established an astounding fact. The very thing which promotes life is killing us. Shocked? Relax.. research has now proved that oxidation in the body cells ( the process by which we are continuously burning our calories to get energy) releases dangerous, very active molecules known as free radicals. These damaging fellows attack other (neighborhood) cells, the cells walls, and the genetic material (DNA) within the cells and over a long time period, such damage can become irreversible (like mutation) and cause disease (e.g. cancer). Even if it doesn’t lead to cancer, the old age symptoms (lack of energy, poor memory, loss of hearing, falling hair) are definitely associated with damaged or weak cells. In addition, free radicals contribute to alcohal-induced liver damage, perhaps more than alcohal itself. Radicals in cigarette smoke have been implicated in inactivation of alpha 1 trypsin in the lung, which promotes the development of emphysema and it is now proved that these free radicals are the main culprit. While nature has created this problem, it has provided the solution as well.

What happens in oxidation (burning)?

Burning is quite aptly associated with loss. Things loose their colour, taste or odour when they are burnt. How does an apple retain its fresh red colour even when there’s so much oxygen and sunlight in the nature? It’s the antioxidant. But if it is cut open, it turns brown after a while. That’s oxidation. the presence of every easily oxidisable compounds, called Antioxidants,in the system can “mop up” free radicals before they damage other essential molecules. Therefore, Antioxidants play a key role in these defense mechanisms. An Antioxidants is a chemical that prevents the oxidation of other chemicals. Consuming more antioxidants helps provide the body with tools to neutralise harmful free radicals. It’s estimated that there are more than 4,000 compounds in foods that acts as antioxidants. The most studied include Vitamin C & E, beta-carotene and the mineral selenium. Besides antioxidants, there are several enzyme systems within the body that scavenge free radicals, the principal micronutrient (vitamin) antioxidants are Vitamin E, beta carotene, & Vitamin C. Additionally, selenium, a trace metal that is required for proper function of one of the body’s antioxidant enzyme systems, is sometimes included in this category. The body cannot manufacture these micronutrient so they must be supplied in the diet.

The following vitamins have shown positive antioxidants effects:

Vitamin A or Retinol,or beta-carotene. It has been discovered that beta-carotene protects dark green, yellow and orange vegetables and fruits from solar radiation damage and it is thought that it plays a similar role in human body. Carrots, Squash, Sweet Potatoes, Tomatoes,Peaches and apricots are particularly rich sources of beta-carotene. (NOTE: Vitamin A has no antioxidant properties and can be quite toxic when taken in excess).

Vitamin C: also called Ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin found in all body fluids, so it may be one of our first lines of defense. This powerful antioxidant cannot be stored by the body, so it’s important to get some regularly-not a difficult task if fruits and vegetable are regularly consumed. Important sources include Citrus Fruits (like Oranges, sweet lime,etc.), green peppers, green leafy vegetables, strawberries, raw cabbage, tomatoes and potatoes.

Vitamin E: A fat soluble vitamin that can be stored with fat in the liver and other tissues, vitamin E is promoted for a range of purposes- from delaying aging to healing sunburn. While it’s not a miracle worker, it’s another powerful antioxidant. Important sources include wheat germ, nuts, seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetable, vegetable oil and fish-liver oil.

Beta-Carotene: the most studied of more than 600 different carotenoids that have been discovered, beta-carotene protects dark green, yellow and orange vegetables and fruits from solar radiation damage. It is thought that it plays a similar role in the body. Carrots, Squash, Sweet potatoes, peaches and apricots are particularly rich sources of beta-carotene.

Beta Carotene rich foods

Selenium: This mineral is thought to help fight cell damage by oxygen-derived compounds and thus may help protect against cancer. It is best to get selenium through foods foods, as large doses of the supplement from can be toxic. Good food sources include fish, shellfish,red meat, grains, eggs chicken and garlic. Vegetables can also be a good source if grown in selenium rich soils.

Natural Sources of Antioxidants

The colorful stuff: carrots, apples, oranges, tomatoes (cooked), beetroot, brinjal, dark green vegetables, olives, strawberries, honey (the darker the better) and so on. The tasty stuff: garlic, ginger, onion, nutmeg. The smelly stuff: tea,green tea, spinach, tulsi and other herbs etc. Research says multi vitamin pills may slow the advance of HIV, as it appears to cut the levels of the virus and boost the number of immune cells.

Even though a tomato is rich in antioxidants, most of them can’t be absorbed by humans because they are too complex. Slow cooking brakes them down into simpler compounds that are easily observed. This antioxidant value of a tomato is said to be increase 5 times when it is cooked.

Preventing Cancer and Heart disease – Do Antioxidants help?

Epidemiologic observations shows lower cancer rates in people whose diets are rich in fruits & vegetables. This has led to the theory that these diets contain substances, possibly antioxidants, which protect against the development of cancer. There is currently intense scientific investigation into this topic. thus far, none of the large, well designed studies have shown dietary supplementation with extra antioxidants reduces the risk of development of cancer. in fact one study demonstrated an increased risk of lung cancer in male smokers who took antioxidants vs,. male smokers who did not supplement. Whether this effect was from the antioxidants is unknown but it does raise the issue that antioxidants may be harmful under certain conditions.

Recommendations

Follow a balanced training program that emphasize regular exercise and eat 5 servings of fruits & Vegetables per day. This will ensure that you are developing your inherent antioxidant systems and that your diet is providing the necessary components.