Importance of antioxidants

Oxygen is the basic element for all functions of the body. During various functions, oxygen interacts with body compounds to produce highly unstable molecules known as free radicals. Free radicals are also generated by the cells of the body’s immune system while they inactivate various microbes invading the body.  Environmental factors such as radiation, cigarette smoke, or pollution can also damage body cells and generate them.

These free radicals need to couple with another electron to become stable, otherwise they remain highly reactive, causing cell and tissue damage. This   wear and tear of body tissues leads to chronic diseases like cancer, arthritis coronary artery disease, and etcetera. They are responsible for reducing immunity of the body, making it prone to infections and various malignancies. The degenerative changes caused lead to and accelerate ageing process of the body.

Antioxidants are chemical substances which neutralise these free oxygen radicals, thus prevent the resultant damage. Research has focused on use of naturally occurring antioxidants to prevent or retard chronic degenerative diseases and ageing.

There are a wide variety of antioxidants in nature.  They are present in abundance in whole grains, nuts, fresh vegetables and fruits. Vitamin A (retinol) is synthesised in the body by beta carotene. It is present in dark green, yellow and orange vegetables and fruits.  Carrots, squash, broccoli, tomatoes, mango, orange, apricot are some of the naturally occurring substances rich in beta carotene and Vitamin A.

Vitamin C, a water soluble vitamin, is also abundantly present in nature and has strong antioxidant properties.  Due to this, it helps to improve immunity of the body and boost the fight against diseases.  Citrus fruits like orange and sweet lemon are rich sources of Vitamin C.  It is also present guavas, green pepper, tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries, black currant, blueberries, raw cabbage, and etcetera.

Vitamin E is useful to prevent ageing and is also protective against coronary artery disease. It is also useful for the reproductive system.  Whole grains are rich source of Vitamin E. Wheat bran is a natural source of Vitamin E. Therefore, it is recommended to use whole wheat flour instead of the refined white flour which contains only carbohydrates. Vegetable oils and fish liver oil are also rich in Vitamin E.

Vitamin C and E work together to prevent oxidation of lipids in the blood stream.  Thus, they retard atherosclerosis and prevent coronary artery disease.

Groundnuts have antioxidant properties, which is enhanced by roasting. Barley, oat, millets and corn are cereals rich in anti-oxidants which can boost the body’s immunity. Certain spices like clove and cinnamon are rich in antioxidants and are very beneficial in multiple ways for the human body.

The list of naturally occurring antioxidants is long. Therefore, it is recommended that one takes a diet rich in fresh fruits, green vegetables, other vegetables, whole grains and fish. It is best to take antioxidant substances in natural form rather than taking artificial supplements in form of tablets.  Natural substances contain a combination of many macro and micro nutrients which provide antioxidants and are useful for the body in multiple ways.

It is also advisable to take these substances in the form of small frequent meals to ensure optimal utilisation and benefit to the body.  If taken in a large amount in one go, it can in fact be harmful, the excess can damage cells. Moreover the excess is not utilised.

To keep the body healthy, prevent chronic diseases and ageing, one should regularly take a diet rich in antioxidants, that is, fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains.

Dr Rachna Pande, 

Specialist, internal medicine