The Skinny on Antioxidants

I know that people talk about “superfoods” and antioxidants a lot, and how they can help to prevent certain diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, HIV, etc. but I don’t think that many people know how they work or what they do.  And, why they can be so good for you!


What are antioxidants?

They come in a bunch of forms such as vitamin A, C, E along with plant-derived polyphenols (found in bright/colorful fruits and veggies), and in selenium, which is found in nuts and broccoli. Basically, these compounds (antioxidants) are able to neutralize the harmful molecules in our bodies, known as free radicals. Free radicals have unpaired electrons, which leave them highly reactive, and allow them to attack various components of our cells and these attacks can cause cancer.  Free radicals can be the by-products if different cellular reactions on our bodies and also from cigarette smoke, air pollution, UV light, and exposure to radiation.

Antioxidants neutralize free radicals either by providing the extra electron needed to make the pair (because they only have one electron) or by breaking down the free radical molecule to render it harmless (essentially attacking the free radical to kill it off). Antioxidants can help stop the chain reaction of free radical formation and benefit our health by boosting our immune system. Because antioxidants are used up in the process of free radical neutralization, a diet rich in antioxidants is essential to ensure a constant supply.

Have they been shown to work?

Research has shown that antioxidants can have an important impact on serious diseases. In one recent study, the addition of a polyphenol-rich blueberry gel to the diet of oral cancer patients prevented recurrence of the cancer. Another experiment demonstrated that increased levels of selenium in the diets of a group of HIV-positive patients significantly delayed progression of the disease.

What does this mean for me?

Do HCP’s suggest you go run out and pop supplement antioxidant pills?  No!!  But, I do suggest to patients to eat diets high in antioxidants, i.e. eat healthy diets that have lots and lots of colors (from fruit an veg- not artificial colors) on each plate.  And, try to limit exposures to free radical causing activities, such as steering clear of cigarette smoke, limiting radiation exposure (or wear lead to protect yourself), and limit high UV light exposure (i.e. the middle of the day).

Yours in Good Health!


 Nurse Bridgid


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