Vitamins offer many health benefits. Many only think they need to take a good vitamin supplement because their mother said so. However, vitamin supplements offer antioxidants such as vitamin E, vitamin C, and vitamin A. These antioxidants combat reactive oxygen intermediates (free radicals). In order for us to understand why it is important to take a vitamin supplement rich in antioxidants, we need to understand free radicals.
Most recall the widely recognized chlorofluorocarbons which were free radicals produced by solar radiation that caused depletion of the ozone layer. This is probably the most familiar free radical that jogs the memory. However, free radicals have been linked to several diseases such as cancer, hypertension, and rheumatoid arthritis to name a few. But what are free radicals?
Free radicals are simply atoms or groups of atoms with unpaired electrons in the outer (valence) shell. Why is this so deadly? Most atoms want to attain a stable outer shell. In order to be stable, free radicals must obtain an electron so that the electrons are paired. Because the outer shell contains unpaired electrons, free radicals are extremely reactive.
In our bodies, free radicals will oxidize the nearest molecule taking the needed electron. The oxidized molecule will then become a free radical, beginning a chain reaction. This chain reaction will continue until resulting in the disruption of a living cell. Free radicals can attack lipids (fats), proteins, carbohydrates, and DNA. However, DNA is a prime target. DNA and free radical interactions usually result in mutations that adversely affect the cell cycle and potentially lead to malignancy. In fact, researchers believe this is how many forms of cancer arise. Why should you take an antioxidant?
Antioxidants are substances that protect the body from damaging oxidation reactions. The antioxidants can safely interact with free radicals and prevent the damage of vital molecules. Antioxidants are able to neutralize the free radical chain reaction by reacting with the free radical. In order to stop the chain reaction, the antioxidant donates the needed electron. The antioxidants also do not become a free radical by donating the electron, safely ending the chain reaction. The antioxidants are able to do this because they are stable in either form.
Free radicals can be very harmful for the body. Most focus on the harmful affects of free radicals and sources of damaging free radicals; pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and herbicides. However, some free radicals can be useful to our bodies and environment. Free radicals are required in polymerization reactions to create useful plastics. The body uses free radicals in the immune system (neutrophils). The body also uses free radicals for cell signaling processes.
Regardless of good free radicals, protection against harmful free radicals is extremely important to good health. The most important antioxidants are vitamin A (beta-carotene), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), and vitamin E (alpha tocopherol). The body does not produce these essential vitamins, so they must be provided in the diet.
The invisible war against harmful free radical damage affects the world. The antioxidant remedy can easily be supplemented with a vitamin supplement fortified with antioxidants. Cancer may not be curable but it can be prevented if antioxidants are allowed to intervene.