You must have come across brands claiming their products to be rich in "antioxidants" or how a particular fruit is right for your health because it has a lot of antioxidants. Or some might even remember Sheldon Cooper's iconic dialogue from Big Bang Theory, "With all these antioxidants, what if I run out of oxidants?" So, what will happen if you run out of all the oxidants? Or what are these oxidants that Sheldon is so worried about losing? What are these antioxidants, and what do they do? Before getting to the answer, there is something that you need to know that would help you connect all the dots and understand antioxidants and their role better. What lies in the center of all of this is "Free Radicals."
Free Radicals – an introductory guide
Free radicals are highly unstable and reactive molecules. Molecules are made up of atoms, and these atoms contain charged species, which are mainly electrons, protons, and neutrons. Electrons are negatively charged species; protons are positively charged species, and neutrons are uncharged species. Molecules are primarily made up of these three, and depending on the numbers and their distribution, they make up different substances. Electrons mainly occur in pairs. When unpaired, they become unstable and continuously look for other electrons to reach stability. This is the case for free radicals as well. It is in this unstable state and their search for electrons that they often borrow or share electrons with other molecules and ensue a chain reaction until they can pair up the electron and reach stability.
Free Radicals in our body
The type of free radicals that are present in our body are reactive oxygens or reactive nitrogen species. Our body continuously produces these as a result of normal metabolic processes. These metabolic processes ensure the smooth functioning of our health system. They are also generated by exercising and even when our body is under attack by some pathogens. Some free radicals may even get formed due to external sources such as X-Rays, air pollutants, UV-Rays, chemicals, etc.
Free radicals are essential for our regular metabolism. They assist in the smooth functioning of many physiological processes, such as specific hormone biosynthesis or food breakdown. They also play a huge role in a process called phagocytosis. This process is what kills the cells of the pathogens that enter your body and cause sickness. Without free radicals, your body's immune system will definitely crumble. They undergo a process called oxidation wherein they steal an electron from the pathogens and become stable. When these pathogens lose their electrons, they become unstable, and this results in cellular damage, eventually killing the pathogen.
But what if they are overproduced? These free radicals attack your cells along with the harmful cells. Because they are looking for electrons, the excess free radicals steal the electrons from your healthy cells and gain stability. They start a chain reaction of oxidation and create oxidative stress in your body, i.e., there is too much oxygen in your cells. But this destroys your cells. This causes damage to your DNA and may lead to diseases such as cancer. This often happens when you are exposed to harmful radiation or when you eat junk food or even when your immune system is not able to differentiate between your own cells and pathogens. This is what happens in an auto-immune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Role of antioxidants
What creates the balance so that free radicals don't go causing havoc in your body are antioxidants. As the name suggests, they do the opposite of free radicals do, i.e., they reverse or stop the oxidation process. These antioxidants are stable enough that they can donate an electron and prevent oxidative stress.
The source of antioxidants
Generally, your body itself can produce antioxidants. There are enzymes that your body produces that take care of the free radicals. There are also micronutrients such as Vitamin C that can also take care of the free radicals. But these the body isn't able to make on its own, and so you need to take them externally. These include fruits such as grapes and lemons or even tea.