Whether you know it or not. Antioxidants are vitamins that are present in foods you eat every day–especially fruits, vegetables, nuts, and vegetable oils. Antioxidant vitamins are an important part of the body’s cell protection system. The antioxidants we have the most information on are vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene, a form of vitamin A.
These antioxidant vitamins are at the center of one of today’s biggest health debates, says Selam International. Everyone agrees that they’re needed for good health. The debate is about whether consuming large amounts of these vitamins can help prevent cancer, heart disease, and other serious diseases.
What’s an Antioxidant?
Why are these vitamins referred to as “antioxidants” The word “antioxidant” comes from the Greek “anti,” meaning “against,” plus “oxys,” referring to oxidation. So, antioxidants are substances that work against oxidation.
When a piece of steel oxidizes, the result is rust. Oxidation that occurs in your body is similar to this.
In your body, certain oxygen molecules, called free radicals, are normally produced by your body’s own metabolism. But too many free radicals can cause problems. Many factors can cause your body to produce more free radicals than are needed. These may include smoking, drinking alcohol, too much fat in your diet, too much sun, even too much exercise, and too many pollutants in the air you breathe. When your body produces too many free radicals, the “extra” free radicals prey on healthy molecules. Here’s how:
Electrons normally exist in pairs. But free radicals have an unpaired electron. So they “raid” other molecules in your body to get an electron to pair up with, leaving the raided molecule short an electron. This causes changes in molecules (oxidation) that can eventually lead to disease.
Antioxidants may prevent this process by releasing unpaired electrons to “neutralize” the harmful, excess free radicals (which then do not need to “raid” healthy molecules and cause oxidation).
Do They Really Work?
Notice we said that antioxidants may prevent oxidation and the resulting diseases. There hasn’t been enough research for us to know for sure how effective antioxidants are. Some studies have shown that people whose diets include large amounts of vitamin E and/or beta carotene have lower rates of heart disease; and that high intake of beta carotene is linked to lower risk of lung cancer. In other studies, however, large amounts of antioxidants in people’s diets had no effect on incidence of disease. And in one study in Finland, high beta carotene intake was associated with increased rates of lung cancer. These studies do not establish that antioxidants are definitely the cause of decreased–or increased–risk of disease. Studies designed to find out whether antioxidants actually prevent disease are now underway. In one study, 22,000 physicians are taking either beta carotene or a placebo (basically, a sugar pill containing no active substances). They will be studied over a period of years to see whether those taking beta carotene have lower rates of cancer than those taking the placebo.
Many doctors and health scientists recommend getting large amounts of antioxidants–in your diet and from supplements.
In the studies mentioned above, the amounts of antioxidants associated with disease prevention were much higher than the amounts found in a normal diet or recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for good health. For example, The Alliance for Aging Research recommends the following amounts:
* Vitamin C, 250 to 1,000 milligrams a day. That’s 4 to 16 times the government’s Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for a healthy diet.
* Vitamin E, 100 to 400 International Units (IU) a day. That’s 3 to 13 times the RDA.
* Beta carotene, 17,000 to 50,000 IU a day. That’s 3 to 10 times the RDA.
So, if you want “antioxidant insurance”–enough antioxidants in your diet to help prevent disease if, in fact, they actually do–you’ll need to eat large amounts of fruits and vegetables or take vitamin supplements. Most researchers say it’s better to get your antioxidants from food than from vitamin pills, because fruits and vegetables contain other vitamins and minerals that may be adding to their protective effect. You should try to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day to get the benefits from antioxidants. In order to get the levels recommended by The Alliance for Aging Research, it might be easier if you eat foods that contain both vitamin C and beta carotene. (See chart on Vitamin-Rich Foods.) But it’s practically impossible to get the recommended level of vitamin E through a healthy diet alone. Even a diet high in vitamin E-rich foods would only provide about 25 International Units (IU), compared to the 1 00 or more units used in the studies. But the research is not in yet, so check with your physician before taking any extra vitamins.
Whether or not vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene prove to prevent cancer and heart disease, they have other, well-known health benefits. Vitamin C speeds healing, helps prevent infections, and prevents scurvy, among other benefits. Vitamin E helps provide oxygen to tissues, prevents blood clots, and helps heal burns. Beta carotene aids eyesight and resistance to infection, and helps keep skin, hair, teeth, gums, and bones healthy. So, a diet high in these vitamins is good for you. Just how good for you remains to be seen.