Antioxidant

free radical

An antioxidant [an-tee-ok-si-duhnt] is a molecule that can slow or stop the oxidation, or loss of electrons, of other molecules. Oxidation reactions are necessary for many bodily functions but can produce free radicals (molecules with an unpaired electron). In turn, these radicals can start chain reactions. When the chain reaction occurs in a cell, it can cause damage or death to the cell. Antioxidants terminate these chain reactions by removing free radical intermediates. They do this by being oxidized themselves (donating an electron to the free radical).

Vitamins and enzymes can have antioxidant properties that neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals. Although oxidation reactions are crucial for life, they can also be damaging; plants and animals maintain complex systems of multiple types of antioxidants. Insufficient levels of antioxidants, or inhibition of the antioxidant enzymes, cause oxidative stress and may damage or kill cells. As oxidative stress appears to be an important part of many human diseases, the use of antioxidants in pharmacology is intensively studied, particularly as treatments for stroke and neurodegenerative diseases. Moreover, oxidative stress is both the cause and the consequence of disease.

Although initial studies suggested that antioxidant supplements might promote health, later large clinical trials with a limited number of antioxidants detected no benefit and even suggested that excess supplementation with certain putative antioxidants may be harmful. Antioxidants also have many industrial uses, such as preservatives in food and cosmetics and to prevent the degradation of rubber and gasoline. People who eat fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of heart disease and some neurological diseases, and there is evidence that some types of vegetables, and fruits in general, may lower risk against some cancers. Since fruits and vegetables happen to be good sources of nutrients and phytochemicals, this suggested that antioxidant compounds might lower risk against several diseases. This idea has been tested in a limited manner in clinical trials and does not seem to be true, as antioxidant supplements have no clear effect on the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. This suggests that these health benefits come from other substances in fruits and vegetables (possibly dietary fiber) or come from a complex mix of compounds. For example, the antioxidant effect of flavonoid-rich foods seems to be due to fructose-induced increases in the synthesis of the antioxidant uric acid and not to dietary antioxidants per se.

A paradox in metabolism is that, while the vast majority of complex life on Earth requires oxygen for its existence, oxygen is a highly reactive molecule that damages living organisms by producing reactive oxygen species (chemically reactive molecules containing oxygen). Consequently, organisms contain a complex network of antioxidant metabolites and enzymes that work together to prevent oxidative damage to cellular components. In general, antioxidant systems either prevent these reactive species from being formed, or remove them before they can damage vital components of the cell. However, reactive oxygen species also have useful cellular functions, such as redox signaling. Thus, the function of antioxidant systems is not to remove oxidants entirely, but instead to keep them at an optimum level.

During exercise, oxygen consumption can increase by a factor of more than 10. This leads to a large increase in the production of oxidants and results in damage that contributes to muscular fatigue during and after exercise. The inflammatory response that occurs after strenuous exercise is also associated with oxidative stress, especially in the 24 hours after an exercise session. The immune system response to the damage done by exercise peaks 2 to 7 days after exercise, which is the period during which most of the adaptation that leads to greater fitness occurs. During this process, free radicals are produced by neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) to remove damaged tissue. As a result, excessive antioxidant levels may inhibit recovery and adaptation mechanisms. Antioxidant supplements may also prevent any of the health gains that normally come from exercise, such as increased insulin sensitivity.

Antioxidants are used as food additives to help guard against food deterioration. Exposure to oxygen and sunlight are the two main factors in the oxidation of food, so food is preserved by keeping in the dark and sealing it in containers or even coating it in wax, as with cucumbers. However, as oxygen is also important for plant respiration, storing plant materials in anaerobic conditions produces unpleasant flavors and unappealing colors. Consequently, packaging of fresh fruits and vegetables contains an ~8% oxygen atmosphere. Antioxidants are an especially important class of preservatives as, unlike bacterial or fungal spoilage, oxidation reactions still occur relatively rapidly in frozen or refrigerated food.

The most common molecules attacked by oxidation are unsaturated fats; oxidation causes them to turn rancid. Since oxidized lipids are often discolored and usually have unpleasant tastes such as metallic or sulfurous flavors, it is important to avoid oxidation in fat-rich foods. Thus, these foods are rarely preserved by drying; instead, they are preserved by smoking, salting or fermenting. Even less fatty foods such as fruits are sprayed with sulfurous antioxidants prior to air drying. Oxidation is often catalyzed by metals, which is why fats such as butter should never be wrapped in aluminium foil or kept in metal containers. Some fatty foods such as olive oil are partially protected from oxidation by their natural content of antioxidants, but remain sensitive to photooxidation. Antioxidant preservatives are also added to fat-based cosmetics such as lipstick and moisturizers to prevent rancidity.

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