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Antioxidants and free radicals – a simple person’s guide!


18One of the annoying facts of life today is all the jargon and buzz-words that we have to live with. It’s bad enough with ‘office-speak’ and such politically correct phrases as ‘vertically challenged’, but, at least, all people, tall and not so tall, have some idea of what it all means. And some of the more bizarre creations of the politicians’ PR departments can even make us smile. But when it comes to all the scientific stuff, then the best that most of us can do is nod and pretend to understand. Because, although we’ve all heard of such things as mitochondrial DNA, heavy metal toxicity, free radicals and antioxidants, few people have much of an idea as to what they are, what they do, and why they’re important.


Take antioxidants, for example. They’re Really Good For Us. But how? Why? What are they? Well, our bodies are made up of trillions and trillions of cells. It’s one gigantic – and usually happy – community. These cells do their specific jobs, die off, and are then replaced. In fact, you can truthfully tell everyone that you are nine years old, as that’s the time it takes for every cell in the human body to have been completely renewed.


Every now and again – quite often, in fact – something goes wrong with one of our cells. But that’s no problem, as other cells with a different job come scurrying over anxiously to sort out the problems. There’s a happy balance being maintained all the time, and it’s one we’re completely unaware of. But, unfortunately, as in even the most utopian of communities, there are always dissidents and radicals trying to stir things up.


And in the community that is us, these radicals are hiding down at the atomic level. The nucleus of our atoms is surrounded by a bunch of orbiting electrons, and very well-behaved they are too. But every now and again one of them makes a break for it. It tears itself away from the farm and heads for the atomic equivalent of the bright city lights, leaving a highly disturbed community behind. And this unstable atomic community has now earned itself the label of a ‘free radical’.


This adventurous little free-radical-atom then goes off the rails, and starts charging around destructively – other cells that come into contact with it are affected and, in many cases, are destroyed. And when enough of these free radicals have damaged or killed enough cells in our body, then we begin to age. This is the essential basis of how we all get older. All these accumulated free radicals oxidise – i.e. ‘infect’ and remove more electrons from – our molecules. And part of this aging process is that our heart, liver, kidneys – all our major organs – start to tire and weaken.


Which is where antioxidants come into the picture. These are the chemical equivalent of little fire engines that chug around repairing cell damage and quenching the bio-chemical fires. We know them more commonly as the vitamins C, E and A, but there’s also a whole bunch of other ones with long and irritating names (such as glutathione peroxidase, catalase, superoxide dismutase, and coenzyme Q10) that do the trick, too. And, happily, all of these chemical antioxidants are found occurring naturally in many common foodstuffs.


Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, broccoli and kale, and brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables, such as peppers, capsicums, tomatoes, papaya and watermelons come high on the list. So does crusty bread – the crust is rich in natural antioxidants. This is connected with the malt content of the bread, with the good news being that the same enzyme is found is beer, especially in the darker brews.


And, on the same good-news theme, red wine is an excellent anti-oxidant, and also stimulates the body’s production of proteins. And recent research has revealed that coffee is a good bet, too. Caffeine, incredibly, is higher on the list than most of the fruits and even red wine.


Other natural sources are found in the whole of the berry family, and just about all of the nuts that you can think of. It makes you realise why cavemen tended to die of death-by-dinosaur rather than heart attacks.


And, whilst we’re on the subject, it’s now been declared that filling up with dairy products has little relation to increased cholesterol levels or the incidence of heart disease. Once again, this is connected with the intake of antioxidants – or, rather, the lack of them. It seems that nearly all the previous research in this area was directed towards a nation that ate a lot of fast or fried food, together with butter, eggs and cheese, but virtually no fresh fruit or vegetables. It seems that the remedy here is simpler than it once appeared!


And the whole business is a lot simpler than it seems. Antioxidants help prevent us aging, and keep at bay the associated diseases that are part of the same process. And the bottom line is that you can just about eat anything you like – and on a regular basis, too. The only thing is that you need to munch on the fresh fruit and veg at the same time. Fresh juice, lots of coffee and wine or maybe the odd glass of beer with some crusty bread and cheese? Perfect. It almost makes me wonder what the fuss was all about!


Rob De Wet


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