Be Sure to Eat Your…..Anti-Oxidants!

People are always talking about what foods have the most anti-oxidants. What does that mean, exactly? Perhaps more importantly, does it mean anything? Or, is it just more health-crazed nonsense? As it turns out (this time), it’s not a load of B.S. So, what is it? Surprise! It’s chemistry! Yay!

Sometimes molecules form things called “radicals,” which are molecules with an odd number of electrons (“unpaired electrons”). Usually, atoms have even numbers of electrons (their goal is to have eight (or 4 “pairs”, whether they get them by stealing them from other molecules, or by nicely sharing them). Radicals are not stable. They really, really want to have an even number of electrons. They react with practically anything because of this. In the human body, free radicals form partly because of unavoidable cellular operations, and partly because of environmental toxins. During cellular respiration, which is how our cells convert nutrients to energy, the “superoxide” radical, O2-, can be formed. Totally normal and natural.

Superoxide, a radical molecule

On the other hand, free radicals can also be formed in less natural ways, such as through cigarette smoke. Chemicals in cigarettes, such as those in tar, react with oxygen as they are inhaled, and create radicals. Substances that create free radicals are one type of carcinogen.

carrots

See how the third molecule has only seven electrons?

Too many free radicals is not a good thing. Because they are so reactive, they end up interfering with really important things, like DNA. In cell, a radical might grab a hydrogen off a nearby molecule in the cell as it looks to be more stable. But then, that nearby molecule becomes a radical, looking to steal an electron from something else. It’s like dominos, except the dominos are pieces of your cells, and if enough of them fall over, you have a dead cell. Some scientists believe this is why aging occurs. Or, sometimes you have a cell whose DNA is now damaged, but can still replicate. That’s cancer. Not good.

This is a diagram of the radical reaction, where the O’s represent oxygen atoms, the H’s represent Hydrogen atoms, and the R’s represent groups of atoms with Carbons in them. If you follow the little black dot (that’s the extra electron that makes a radical), you can see that the chain reaction starts all over again when you get to the bottom.

Luckily for our cells, there are antioxidants! And better yet, there’s a fun and easy way to get antioxidants into your body. Eating food! Well, not any food. Many fruits and vegetables (and some nuts) have been found to contain high amounts of anti-oxidants. Some of the most famous ones include Vitamins C and E and beta-carotene. Plus, the body makes a few of its own enzymes that collect free radicals.

So, what exactly are “anti-oxidants,” and what’s so awesome about them that they can potentially help prevent cancer? Anti-oxidants are molecules or enzymes that grab the odd electron from radicals, and neutralize the radical, so they become harmless. These molecules either have an extra electron themselves, or react in such a way that the radical is broken down into a stable molecule. The other way in which anti-oxidants work is by making mitochondria more efficient. Mitochondria are tiny bean-shaped organs inside every cell that play a major part in cellular respiration (making energy). Since they’re so vital to this process, they’re often exposed directly to the free radicals that are made. Poor little mitochondria. The more anti-oxidant rich foods you eat, the more efficiently the mitochondria can produce energy (so, more energy, less radicals). Anti-oxidant rich foods are like force fields for the parts of your cells. Here is a list of some of the most anti-oxidant rich foods.

 

Keep reading, and keep eating your greens : )

Leave comments if you have questions- I’ll do my best to answer!

-Ashley

 

Sources:

http://www.rice.edu/~jenky/sports/antiox.html

http://users.rcn.com/jkimball.ma.ultranet/BiologyPages/R/ROS.html

http://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/Contexts/Digestion-Chemistry/Looking-Closer/Mitochondria-cell-powerhouses

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1568603/

http://www.rps.psu.edu/probing/antioxidants.html

 

 

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