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Everyone knows something about antioxidants. Gobs of vitamin C are consumed to prevent or halt a cold. Vitamin E has tremendous cardiovascular benefits.. Beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A also known as retinol, is eschewed for its strong influence on the immune system, night vision and its contributions to the physical integrity of skin, nails and hair. The mineral members of this family, zinc, manganese, iron, copper and selenium, are more known for their namesake then their function. And more recently, lesser known compounds to the public are quickly gaining ground on their more popular siblings, including enzymes (S.O.D. and catalase) and phytonutrients ( flavonoids and carotenoids). Also belonging to this family are other endogenously produced substances: glutathione and alpha-lipoic acid. Overall, the primary function of AOs is to eliminate free radicals (FR) as they appear.


A free radical (FR) is an atom or molecule with an unpaired electron. This configuration is volatile and seeks out an electron to quiet itself. By taking the electron it needs, it creates another FR. This new FR looks to balance itself. It will take an electron from another molecule and leave a new FR in its path. This donating and borrowing of an electron (known as oxidation and reduction) is an unlimited, never-ending, ongoing, chain reaction that is critical to our health.

FRs result from our daily metabolic reactions. Normally, the body satisfies this FR need through the use of anti-oxidants (AO). This is a group of nutrients capable of offering an electron to neutralize FRs and have the potential for self-regeneration. When the supply of AO is diminished, the FR will seek an electron from healthy body tissue. Ultimately this damages the tissue in the process leading to wide range of maladies, from any type of inflammation to heart disease and cancer. However, if it were not for our body’s ability to foster these oxidative reactions, we would not survive our first day of life.

How do these FR develop? Most of the FR we must contend with are generated by our own metabolic processes. First, the production of ATP, the substrate from which our body derives energy to function, gives off FR as part of its endeavor. Secondly, the immune system response (which basically defends and repairs the body and participates in everything from a paper cut to fighting pathogens), utilizes FR as part of its strategy. Finally, detoxification keeps the body functioning at an optimal level by eliminating our own waste products of metabolism and contaminants from the environment. However, it does have cost of FR production.

Where else do FRs come from? The environment is littered with 75,000 chemicals ranging from pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers in the soil to preservatives, radiation, coloring, hormones and antibiotics in our food. We are continuously exposed to exhausts from air conditioners, automobiles, jets and second-hand smoke. There are plastics, metals and other pollutants of industry we contend with daily and the toxic burden that comes from the overuse of medicines (including the birth control pill) and recreational drugs is widespread. All of these increase the amount of poisons the body must elimnate, thus increasing the production of FR via detoxification.

How does the body counterbalance FR? The same processes responsible for FR production inherently utilizes AOs to contain the FR. This increases metabolic effiency and minimizes any potential harm. If the body has an adequate supply of AOs there is no irreparable damage from the FRs. As the body’s relative level of AOs decreases and the ability to donate an electron to a FR is impaired, the FRs eventually start to accumulate in the body’s tissues. This weakens all systems and sets up an environment more vulnerable to disease. The most commonly known illness concerning FR is cancer, but the vast majority of all diseases have FRs as part of their development.

Where do the AOs come from? The body naturally produces and consumes substances known as antioxidants (AO). These compounds are most highly concentrated in fruits and vegetables. The body will also produce its own AO i.e. glutathione, from sources in the diet. Some AO can donate an electron without destabilizing itself or may directly convert or help transform the FR into an inert substance. AO also have the capacity to regenerate themselves i.e. vitamin C regenerates vitamin E after it donates an electron; likewise, glutathione helps regenerate vitamin C after it gives away one of its electrons. Only when there is a relative imbalance in AO and FR, will the FR seek an electron elsewhere.

Where else does the FR get that needed electron from? At the cellular level, the FR attacks the cell membrane which is composed of fats and proteins. FR will obtain an electron from fats and proteins with fatty acids being the most susceptible. FR will also attack DNA, the encoded blueprint of our bodies, located inside each of these cells. Damage to these structures alters normal functions and is implicated in all minor inflammatory processes. Left unheeded, the continued breakdown of fats, protein and DNA can lead to numerous degenerative conditions, with cancer and cardiovascular diseases in the forefront.


Energy Production: Oxygen is the basis to life. It is transported through the blood to every cell of the body. Inside each cell is a storehouse called the mitochondria, where energy is manufactured in the form of ATP (this occurs in three stages). During the final stage known as the electron transport, electrons are readily shuttled back and forth culminating in ATP production. This lends to the production of FR and the body supplies two AO to counteract this. Most importantly is Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), which also plays a major role in benefiting cardiovascular conditions, i.e. congestive heart failure, and certain tumor growths. The other AO is a derivative of vitamin B3 known as NADH, often effective in the treatment of chronic fatigue.

Immunity: Tissue injury due to trauma, infection, radiation, ischemia etc. initiates a two stage inflammatory response to repair the area. First is the vascular response. Local tissue and platelets release chemical mediators, resulting in vasodilation and vascular permeability. This is responsible for the hot, swollen, pinkish-red appearance to the involved tissue. The second phase involves many of the same chemical mediators along with other biochemical activators to attract white blood cells to the effected area. The white blood cells digest and eliminate pathogens and necrotic tissue. The cells utilize oxygen and produce FR to carry out this process. If left uncontained, the FR will damage the surrounding tissue and perpetuate the inflammation. AO and supporting anti-inflammatory compounds contain and wall off the inflammation. This protects the neighboring healthy tissue, while preparing the effected area for repair.

Some nutrients involved in the immune system are the AOs vitamin C and E, which address the FR situation as direct neutralizers. Vitamin C also contributes to the production of tissue repair. The main effect of vitamin E is to stabilize and safely guard the cell membrane from FR attacks. It also protects LDL cholesterol from oxidizing, believed to be directly involved with the development of atherosclerosis.

The minerals zinc, copper and manganese are critical for the function of the FR-fighting enzyme S.O.D. S.O.D. helps the body fight against viral and bacterial infections. Beta-carotene, the most recognizable of the carotenoids, provides protection for lipid-rich tissues. Likewise, along with its role as an anti-viral, it strengthens the integrity of the mucous membranes, defending the lungs from smoking and air pollution. Repairing tissue damage from FR contact is another function.

Detoxification: The primary pathway of detoxification is a two step arrangement. Phase I has enzymes, collectively termed Cytochrome P450s. These act to neutralize drugs, pesticides, preservatives, alcohol and biochemical substrates generated by normal physiological activities i.e. hormones and neurotransmitters. Some substances are reduced to harmless, water-soluble forms for excretion. Others are changed into more harmful intermediaries and enter into Phase II for further detoxification. Either way, all chemicals passing through Phase I go through oxidation creating FRs. If the AO defense system is lowered, liver damage occurs.

The most important AO involved in Phase I is glutathione, manufactured from the amino acids, cysteine, glycine and glutamic acid, the minerals magnesium an potassium,and vitamins B6 and NADPH (form of B3). The greater the exposure to toxins, the faster glutathione is used up due to the increased workload. Because glutathione is also critical in Phase II functioning, Phase II competency is compromised simultaneously. There are other numerous nutrients vital to protecting the liver including selenium and phytonutrients i.e. silamaryn and caortenoids.

Another path for detoxification in the liver is for the filtration of blood containing bacteria, antigen-antibody complexes and toxins. This is accomplished by specialized cells (Kupfer cells) that engulf and destroy these particles, releasing FR as part of the reaction. If the AO level is below normal, tissue damage to the liver may occur.

Finally, the liver produces bile, which acts as a carrier for smaller sized toxins. Bile effectively eliminates toxins through the intestinal tract where it is bound to fiber and excreted.


Phytonutirents: These are chemicals obtained from plants having numerous properties, including those as AO. Two main classifications are carotenoids and flavonoids.

Carotenoids: These are pigments responsible for the orange, red and yellow appearance in fruits and vegetables. With the identification of over 500 specific entries, carotenoids are also found in vegetables. Numerous studies reveal the role of carotenoids in the prevention or delay of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Members of the family, including the previously discussed beta-carotene are lycopene (derived from tomatoes), found highly concentrated in prostate tissue. Lutein and xeanthine are others offering key assistance in the prevention and decelaration of macular degeneration, the main cause of blindness that occurs with age.

Flavonoids: These account for the red, blue and purple hues of plants. Their classification is determined by chemical structure. There are twelve categories, each one home to numerous familiar phytochemicals including the phytoestrogens from soy (genestein and diadzein), quercitin and hesperidin (active as antihistamines), and proanthocyanidins. Proanthrocyanidins contain numerous phytochemicals that have a broad spectrum AO capacity. Even some of the potent effects of herbs are due to their flavonoid content. Familiar names include Hawthorn Berry (heart conditions), Ginko Biloba (neurological and memory), and Billberry (cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration).

Note: Varying your fruit and vegetable choices by their colors, assures an intake of a wide range of phytonutritionally based AO. The richer the pigments, the greater the concentration of AO.

The sources and functions of AO are way too great for this review. This is a very brief and rudimentary summary regarding the basics of AO. This information is not to guide you to prescribing your own program but to assist you to start to understand the nature of FRs and the basic AOs the body uses to counterbalance them. Before taking any supplements, please contact your practitioner. To assure full effectiveness of any supplementation, a proper diet, exercise program and stress reduction techniques are necessary.