Antioxidants are very important to our health, including lowering the risk of cancer. Antioxidant therapy has many benefits in the prevention of cancer, but it loses its effectiveness once cancer has developed. I repeat, it loses its effectiveness once cancer has developed. Antioxidants combat the effects of free radicals. We live in a time of too much free radical production causing damage. We will first describe what a free radical is and then give you examples of free radicals in the body. This will be followed by a list of functions of some of the well-known and important antioxidants. In the end we will attempt to tie it together.
Free radicals are molecules or elements that have given up or reduced an electron in their orbit. An attempt will be made to keep the discussion simple. When they give these electrons up, they have a tendency to want the electrons back and can bind with another molecule to share its electron. Simply put, here is the problem: when they bind with other substances, it can cause a great deal of problems, depending upon what they bond or unite with. Free radicals can attach to genes, causing the repair process of the DNA to stop. This can lead to an increased risk of cancer.
Free radicals are capable of bonding to DNA. DNA is the substance in cells that contains our genes which contain and regulate our body and cellular functions. Free radicals can attach to them, altering their function or even worse causing abnormal cell reproduction or production of abnormal enzymes, leading to cancer. Our body contains mechanisms to repair DNA that has been damaged by free radicals, so only rarely will these cause problems.
Free radicals can also attach to an enzyme, a hormone, or a fat molecule, altering its function. This can cause the enzyme, hormone or fat to malfunction or alter its function. Again, this process can lead to other chemicals and enzymes being formed that increase risks of cells turning cancerous.
Free radicals do have positive functions in the body. They are used between cells to communicate with each other. This is very important because malignant cells tend to stop communicating with the normal cells around them. The white blood cell is used in our body to fight infection and tumors. White blood cells release free radicals to destroy bacteria and anything that the body does not recognize, including the cancer cell. Nitrous oxide is considered a free radical and performs many important functions, including the regulation of blood vessel tone, communication between nerves, or neurotransmitter, and in immune protection.
Despite the positive role some free radicals perform, most people feel that we need to reduce the free radical damage to our bodies to maintain optimal health and decrease our risk of many cancers. It is estimated that the average cell has 10,000 free radical hits in its lifetime. The far majority of the time, our bodies have the ability to protect itself. As we age, free radical damage builds up, lowering our health status and increasing our risk for cancers. Most of the free radicals come from our own bodies. For example, two to five percent of the oxygen consumed in the mitochondria, or the area where energy is produced, forms free radicals. The others come from the environment, including the food we eat, preservatives, pesticides, and toxins in the water and air.
Antioxidants are a major way our bodies deal with free radicals. Antioxidants donate an electron to the free radical, rendering them harmless. Some will bind directly with the free radical and become chemically inactive. Others activate other enzymes in the body to neutralize free radicals. Many of the enzymes are in the liver. Our body produces some antioxidants and others are in the foods we eat. It is worthwhile to note that we cannot survive on only the antioxidants we produce or we will die.
Antioxidants are found in plants. In plants they function to protect the plant from the same damage we described above. The more the danger of free radicals, the more antioxidants the plant produces. It is one reason why fruits and vegetables are protective in many cancers. Bright colored fruits and vegetables have high levels of antioxidants.
The FDA disappointingly lists only three nutrients as antioxidants. These include, vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta carotene. I say “disappointingly” because there is ample evidence to support the use of other antioxidants in many diseases. We will now attempt to briefly describe some of the free radicals and how they are produced over the next couple of paragraphs.
The reactive oxygen species, or free radical, is mainly produced in the Krebs cycle used for energy production. This is where the majority of free radicals are produced. Super oxide anion, or O2-, is a very common free radical produced in many reactions. It is also one of the weaker or more harmless free radicals. Hyroxide radical, or OH-, is highly reactive in our body. This free radical can be produce in our body by Fe+2 in our bodies. It is one reason iron supplementation can be dangerous in high dosage. OH- can directly damage DNA and can react with the cell membrane causing a chain reaction. This has been implicated in oxidated damage of arteriosclerosis.
Other highly reactive free radicals are Peroxynitrite, and Hypochlorous acid. The body has several antioxidants that it uses to combat free radicals in different parts of the body and cells. Therefore, it becomes vital that a wide range of antioxidants be used in order to protect the whole body. We will start with the low molecular weight antioxidants like vitamins E, C and glutathione and then talk about the enzymes that the body uses as antioxidants, like superoxide Dismutase.
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin and is one of the best antioxidants the body has. Vitamin C has the ability to neutralize several free radicals including superoxide anion and Hypochlorite acid. It protects the cell membrane and counters the effects of Nitrosamine, the cancer-causing agents in foods. It also has a sparing effect on vitamin E, which means it helps the body save vitamin E. Vitamin C also helps the immune system and helps detoxify the body.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant and is one of the most important antioxidants. Vitamin E is used to break the chain reaction free radical damage that happens in cell membranes. This is important, as cell membranes are thought to regulate what goes in and out of the cell. Vitamin E is also protective for the fats, specifically LDL that float around in our blood. If LDL has free radical damage to it, it can lead to arteriosclerosis. Other Tocotrienols have been discovered and many offer other protection. It is important to take natural vitamin E since it is two to three times more effective than man-made or synthetic vitamin E.
Glutathione Peroxidase are enzymes that fight several free radicals, including some in the cell membrane. These enzymes use selenium, so selenium is also considered an antioxidant. This enzyme also has functions in the liver to detoxify the body. It also helps other antioxidants like Vitamin C and Vitamin E do their jobs.
Superoxide Dismutase is an enzyme throughout the body used to neutralize many different and damaging free radicals. SOO needs other nutrients to be effective, including copper, zinc and magnesium.
Carotenoids. There are currently over 600 different Carotenoids and growing. They are found in bright red orange and yellow plant pigments. Beta carotene is probably the most recognized representative. One quarter to one third of all Carotenoids that are found in the blood. It appears that certain carotenoids work at specific sites. Beta Carotenoids being found in the liver, adrenals, kidney, ovaries, and testes. Lycopene is a Carotenoid found in tomatoes that is shown to decrease prostrate cancer risks. Luton and zeaxanthin are found in the eye and macula. These Carotenoids, along with being powerful antioxidants, also support the immune system. Some studies show benefits against cardiovascular risks and lung cancer. Again, the natural forms seem to be more beneficial than the man-made, synthetic types. Since they seem to function at different sites, mixed Carotenoids probably offer the best protection.
N-acetylsistine is an antioxidant that can raise levels of glutathione. Co-enzyme Q is another potent fat soluble antioxidant capable of recycling Vitamin E. It also functions in energy production. Co-enzyme Q supports the immune system and is found to improve function in cardiac patients. For the body to make co-enzyme Q, it needs an adequate supply of vitamin B2, B6, B12 and folate. It appears that supplementation may offer more benefits than relying on what the body can produce.
Flavonoids compose a list of antioxidants over 6,000 long. They work with Vitamin C and increase its effects. Flavonoids are found in fruits and teas. Some of the more common ones you hear about are ruten, quercetin, isoflavones, and lignans. Some of the flavonoids have shown benefits in cardiovascular disease and reducing risk of some cancers. Some studies show intake of these flavonoids in our diet as well. Herbs also can act as antioxidants and detoxifying agents. Silybum Marianum is found in milk thistle and helps promote liver detoxification, which helps the body in auto-antioxidation.
Ginko Baloba is an antioxidant used to support cerebral function and vascular integrity. Studies support the use for short-term memory and possibly for dementia.
Some foods with increased antioxidant activity, including strawberries, grapes, kiwi, plums, oranges, apples, carrots, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. This is not a complete list of antioxidants, just a short list to give an idea that we require many different antioxidants to support our bodies and functions. Certain antioxidants will be used to focus on areas of concern. The use of too much antioxidant supplementation can be just as deadly as not enough. The proper amounts and types should be discussed with your physician.