Free radicals are often spoken about in advertisements for beauty, cosmetic products and health foods. Does anybody really understand what they are? What do antioxidants and vitamins do to help?

A bit of chemistry

To understand the way that free radicals and antioxidants interact, you must first understand a bit about cells and molecules. Our bodies are made up of cells; cells are made up of molecules, and molecules are made up of one or more atoms joined by chemical bonds.

Molecules need to be stable, but if weak chemical bonds split, free radicals are formed. They’re unstable and attack the nearest stable molecules, trying to ‘steal’ electrons. The attacked molecule loses its electron and becomes unstable itself, starting a chain reaction that eventually disrupts living cells.

What causes formation of free radicals?

Some free radicals arise normally during metabolism. Sometimes the body’s immune system’s cells purposefully create them to neutralize viruses and bacteria.

However, environmental factors such as pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and herbicides can also spawn free radicals.

Normally, the body can handle free radicals, but if antioxidants are unavailable, or if the free-radical production becomes excessive, damage can occur. Of particular importance is that free radical damage accumulates with age.

How Antioxidants help

The vitamins C and E are thought to protect the body against the destructive effects of free radicals. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by donating one of their own electrons, ending the electron-“stealing” reaction, and they are still stable afterwards, helping prevent cellular damage and disease.

Vitamin E: The most abundant fat-soluble antioxidant in the body is one of the most efficient chain-breaking antioxidants available. It’s the primary defender against oxidation and lipid peroxidation (creation of unstable molecules containing more oxygen than is usual).

Vitamin C: The most abundant water-soluble antioxidant in the body, acting mainly in cellular fluid. Of particular note in combating free-radical formation caused by pollution and cigarette smoke, and also helps return vitamin E to its active form.

Antioxidants and Disease Prevention

Vitamin E may protect against cardiovascular disease by defending against LDL oxidation and artery-clogging plaque formation.

Many studies have correlated high vitamin C intakes with low rates of cancer, particularly cancers of the mouth, larynx and oesophagus.

The best way to ensure adequate intake of the antioxidant nutrients is through a balanced diet consisting of 5-8 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

Many skin treatments also contain these antioxidants, and Cosmetic Doctor can help you decide which treatments can help your skin. Call 01 685 3100 to book a consultation.

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