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An antioxidant is a type of molecule that counteracts the oxidation of other molecules. Oxidation is the chemical reaction which occurs when the oxidation state of molecules, atoms or ions are altered. This alteration is marked by the loss of electrons, which causes a destabilization of molecules.  But what makes them, well, antioxidants?  In our article, we’ll answer that question, and a whole lot more.  We have a ton of information to cover, so let’s jump right in.  Did we miss anything?  Let us know in the comments.

So, What Are Antioxidants?

Antioxidant” is the term used in reference to two groups of chemical compounds:

  1. Chemicals (industrial) added to products that prevent oxidation
  2. Chemicals (natural) found in foods and body tissues used for health benefits

Plants and animals utilize antioxidants in a complex overlapping system to help balance oxidation. Some of these are produced internally and some are dietary.

Non-Essential Antioxidants

Some antioxidants are synthesized internally by plants and animals. These are produced indirectly without the need of food to replenish them. Some of these include:

  • Glutathione
  • Enzymes
  • Catalase
  • Superoxide Dismutase

Essential (Dietary) Antioxidants

Antioxidants that are not made internally are called essential antioxidants. This means that these nutrients are acquired through the diet. Foods containing these nutrients must be eaten in order to utilize a Dietary Antioxidant. Some of these include:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E

Antioxidant Health Effects

There is much debate on the benefits of antioxidants. Studies can be conflicting on the potential benefits and side effects. Here we will discuss the various areas that currently researched.

Dietary Relation

Antioxidant vitamins are required to some degree for good health. However, there are arguments that question the validity of supporting research on the benefits of antioxidant foods and supplements being effective in reducing or preventing disease. In turn, studies have yet to indicate which antioxidants contain anti-disease activity. Some researchers believe that the theory of antioxidants is misguided and unproven in regard to preventing chronic disease.


Common pharmaceuticals and supplements have been shown to inhibit certain treatments, including radiation and anticancer medication.

One antioxidant steroid derivative, Tiralazad, is used to inhibit lipid peroxidation. Studies indicate that this could actually have a pivotal part in reducing lipid peroxidation which is the cause of neural death during stroke and head injury. Studies have proven this beneficial in animal subjects, but had no effect in head injury patients and worsened symptoms in some stroke patients.

Physical Exercise

Studies reveal that there are actually no benefits or negative side effects on athletes. One report on a trial of Vitamin E taken for 6 weeks have zero benefits. Other clinical studies on the effects of up to 1000 mg of Vitamin C taken by athletes had shown evidence that this could actually slow down muscle recovery time. In addition, another study produced information on the reduction of cardiovascular function during exercise when using high amounts of antioxidants.

Antioxidant Stress

Fundamentally, oxidants are the opposite of antioxidants and there can be adverse side effects taken in access. The overabundance of antioxidants can cause antioxidant stress. For example, high levels of certain antioxidant types can interfere with the ability of the immune system to fight pathogens.

Notable Implications of Antioxidants:

  • Allergies
  • Asthama
  • Skin Alterations
  • Antinutrients
  • Inhibited Immunity
  • Increased Mortality

Adverse Health Effects

There are some antioxidant supplements that can actually promote disease and, under certain conditions, potentially increase human mortality. Researchers hypothesize that the endogenous defensive response against exogenous radicals is induced by free radicals.  Thus, it may be the life span is increased by certain free radicals. Thereby, life extending and health promoting benefits caused by toxic radicals could be prevented introducing certain antioxidant types to your system.

Oxidative Stress

The primary role of antioxidant has been to reduce oxidative stress. However, as oxygen is essential component of life, this creates a paradox in metabolism. Thus, a network of metabolites and enzymes help provide more defense against cellular damage to lipids, proteins and DNA. Although antioxidants are thought of as preventing oxidants, it actually optimizes the levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS).

Reactive oxygen species are created during metabolic processes. Oxidants include:

  • Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O22)
  • Hypochlorous Acid (HCIO)
  • Free Radicals (Hydroxyl radical and Superoxide anion)

Oxidants can cause damage on the cellular level. In the case of lipids, it can start a chain reaction such has lipid peroxidation. This occurs in 3 phases: Initiation, propagation and termination. When certain ROS combine with Hydrogen atoms, it can lead to the creation of fatty acid radicals. These unstable molecules react with the presence of oxygen molecules. In turn, this creates peroxyl-fatty acid radicals. When these unstable species encounter free fatty acids, a new fatty acid radical are created as well as a lipid peroxide are created. Each new radical formed will carry on this chain reaction until prohibited (terminated) by the presence of an antioxidant.

Antioxidant Metabolites

An antioxidant is separated into water (hydrophilic) or lipid (lipophilic) solubility. Generally, hydrophilic antioxidants defend against oxidants in the blood plasma and cell cystol, while lipophilic antioxidants reduce damage from lipid peroxidation in the cell membranes. Antioxidants can either be obtained through diet or synthesized in the body.

Antioxidant Metabolite Solubility:

  • Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) – Water Soluble
  • Glutathione – Water Soluble
  • Lipoic acid – Water Soluble
  • Uric acid – Water Soluble
  • Carotenes – Lipid Soluble
  • α-Tocopherol (vitamin E) – Lipid Soluble
  • Ubiquinol (coenzyme Q) – Lipid Soluble

The effectiveness of antioxidants depends on a number of factors. It level of protection is determined by the antioxidants concentration, strength versus a particular oxidant and the status of the antioxidant. Therefore, the effective benefits of antioxidants individually depend on the entire antioxidant system, working in synergy to protect the body from oxidants.

Todd Ruggets
Todd Ruggets

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