It is hard to read any article on health , diet or nutrition these days without seeing the word 'antioxidants' peppered throughout the writing. Antioxidants and products that are supposed to be made up of the nutrient are also found liberally in ads for products ranging from supplements to skin creams. People read grandiose claims that these substances can prevent cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Diabetes and even cataract not to mention increased longevity and give their skin a youthful glow. Millions take supplements containing one or more antioxidants every day, sometimes on their doctor’s advice. I have personally seen and know of people who have great faith in antioxidants and consume any supplement that promises to provide this nutrient to their system. They seem to think that taking supplements takes care of everything and they are on their way to a hassle free, healthy life which may not always be the case!

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This is because many individuals are still confused, they may buy pills that contain antioxidants, most of the time without fully understanding what these compounds are and what they can do and cannot do to their health. It is very essential to have some basic knowledge about the stuff that is supposed to do wonders for our system and has been the topic of discussion in almost all health debates .The following few tips and information will help you separate fact from hype by throwing light on what these nutrients are ? and how these nutrients work to protect our bodies against disease.

What are Antioxidants ?

The more I read about the subject the more complicated and technical it seemed to sounds, so here I am trying to simplify it in a few sentences and paragraphs without going into too many details. When people refer to Antioxidants in general terms, it seem like a very easily got substance that is freely available in stuff like green tea and olive oil and once you start making these items part of your daily diet by gulping glasses of green tea or even better white tea and start cooking only in olive oil ( even if it tastes weird ) you have made some very healthy choices . This is not at all true since antioxidants are not to be taken so lightly, they have their own separate identities and functions.

All cells in the human body use oxygen to break down the carbohydrates, fats and proteins that give them energy. Just as a car creates exhaust as it burns fuel, metabolically active cells produce certain byproducts called free radicals. These free radicals are oxygen molecules that have lost a negatively charged particle called electron, and seek to stabilize themselves by stealing an electron from a nearby molecule. Now, Free radicals go about doing that and they are not choosy from where they get their electrons from, and they will readily attach themselves to or damage protein, fat and any other available chemicals in the body. In their search for electrons ,if and when free radicals attack DNA, a cell's genetic material, they may induce the cell to undergo changes that lead to uncontrolled cell proliferation, which is nothing but cancer.

Fortunately, cells in the human body come equipped with a defense system for combating free radicals, they naturally produce a variety of antioxidants, which are chemicals that limit the activity of free radicals and repair their damage. However, some researchers believe that, as people age, their cells generate fewer of these protective compounds, or the ones they produce become less efficient at doing their job. Thus, in theory at least, an age-related increase in uncontrolled free radicals may explain why many diseases become more common as people grow older and their immune system weakens.

Vitamin C and E , Beta Carotene and other Carotenoids ( which are nothing but chemicals that give plants their red, orange and yellow color ), and the mineral selenium (Selenium is a trace mineral that is essential to good health but required only in small amounts, in large doses it can become toxic ) are the most studied antioxidants. Although the above mentioned nutrients act on cells in similar ways, they are not interchangeable and differ from one another considerably. Researchers are just beginning to understand the particular role each one may play in warding off disease. Right at the beginning I would like to say that most of what we read about Antioxidants and its miraculous power is one big myth and so far there is not much known about them to make any definite claims as you will come to know when you read and learn more about them , their function and positive impact on our bodies.

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Antioxidants at a glance

It is important to know about the different categories of Antioxidants and the foods that are rich sources of that particular nutrient.

Vitamin E – 30 IU ( daily intake ) – found in vegetable oils (soya, corn, olive, sunflower, cottonseed) nuts, wheat germ – doses of 100–180 IU may lower heart disease risk by 305 – 40%.

Vitamin C – 60 mg ( daily intake ) – found in Citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, melon, cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, drumstick leaves, spinach – consuming more than the daily intake in supplement form has not been found to prevent heart disease or cancer .

Beta-carotene – found in Dark green, yellow, orange vegetables including spinach and other leafy vegetables, broccoli, carrots, pumpkins, apricots, papaya, mango, peaches etc – there is no association between beta carotene supplementation and heart disease or cancer risk. There is some evidence to suggest that carotenoid rich foods protect against heart disease and macular degeneration ( Age related which usually affects older adults).

Selenium – found in Egg yolks, tuna fish, seafood, chicken liver, whole grains and edible plants that are grown in selenium rich soil – some preliminary evidence suggests that 150 – 200 mcg may lower the risk of prostate cancer.

Beating Heart disease

Researchers are now almost certain that free radicals are capable of promoting some cases of heart disease. When these molecules damage low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol inside blood vessels, white blood cells flock to the site and consume the LDL in an attempt to repair the injury. Apparently, when white cells are attacked and swollen with LDL particles, they become foam cells or liquid laden cells that can be extremely bad for heart.

According to studies, Vitamin E may protect people against heart disease, possibly by preventing free radicals from damaging LDL particles. But the problem here is that the bulk of the evidence comes from observational investigations – that is studies in which the participants reported their intake on questionnaires only. They were not asked to take the vitamin as part of the clinical trial nor were they put on any strict diet! Also, since the amount of Vitamin E that is needed to prevent heart disease cannot be obtained only through dietary sources, the studies conducted so far have focused only on individuals who took supplements. According to those data, taking doses from 100 to 180 IU(International Unit) per day may lower the risk of heart disease by 30 percent to 40 percent. Some doctors recommend that their patients both healthy individuals and those with coronary artery disease – take E supplements to prevent or slow down the spread of heart diseases.

However, according to some studies conducted the supplements did not appear to reduce the risk of heart disease for heavy smokers as compared to non smokers. In fact according to studies there was very little or in some cases absolutely no reduction in the risk levels in spite of taking the supplements. There is also no consensus about the optimal amount of Vitamin E people should ideally take since it depends on many different conditions. But we can safely say that getting carotenoids through food may lower coronary disease risk and instead of getting them through supplements one should concentrate on getting enough of nutrients through balanced food.

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Cancer Protection

Another opinion that we get to hear is about the usefulness of this nutrient towards preventing, helping or curing cancer. The strongest evidence that antioxidants may prevent cancer comes from studies that compared people who ate a lot of fruits and vegetables, which are rich in the compounds to those who did not. Indeed many researches and hundreds of investigations from around the world have found an association between a plant rich diet and lower risk of colon, stomach, lung, breast, and prostate malignancies. There are also indications that suggest that at least one third of all cancer deaths are linked to diets low in fruits and vegetables and high in fat. But as of now there is no clear indication as to whether Antioxidants by themselves are able to prevent cancer or cure cancer at later stages.

Taking everything into consideration, under the circumstances the best way of getting the maximum health benefits for ourselves is by taking a variety of antioxidants, as well as other beneficial plant chemicals by making sure that we eat an assortment of healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and pulses. According to dietitians a good rule of thumb is to consume at least three colors of vegetables and fruits each day because plants with varied pigments are thought to contain different antioxidants. Evidences suggest that Lycopene, which is a carotenoid found in Tomatoes that make them red may lower the risk of cancer to a great extent. Studies also suggest that lycopene is best absorbed when tomatoes are cooked. So, tomato puree, tomato soup, even curried dishes using lots of tomatoes and tomato sauce made at home without any added chemicals or preservatives are good sources of the nutrient.

Studies have shown promising results as regards the mineral Selenium which may protect against prostate cancer and also possibly Lung, colon and esophageal malignancies. However according to most studies conducted and also according to the experts it is still too early to recommend people to take Selenium supplements. There simply isn't enough study material to promote the substance and as of now it is a bit of a mystery as to the level at which the nutrient can turn toxic since the only thing that most scientists are certain about is – that one need to take very small doses of this substance and it is advisable that it comes through natural food rather than supplements.

Regarding Better Vision

According to studies made by various research groups and scientists , Free radicals play a major role in damaging the proteins in the lens of the eye. There is some evidence that the antioxidant vitamins namely Vitamin E, C and Beta-carotene may reduce the risk of developing cataracts. The carotenoids appear to be the key antioxidants in preventing macular degeneration which I already mentioned earlier in this article. Macula is the center portion of the Retina and the progressive degeneration of this part which is quite a common occurrence , can be stopped by taking food rich in carotenoids and supplements prescribed by the doctors.

This conclusion has been drawn after many researches and case studies were conducted on the dietary habits of individuals with macular degeneration as against those who did not have this condition. People with the highest reported consumption of carotenoids had a much lower risk of macular degeneration than those with lower dietary intake. The major benefit comes from green leafy vegetables which incidentally has lutein and zeaxanthin , both a variety of antioxidants that also exist in the retina. So, more than the supplements what matters is the food habit and diet that controls most of our health conditions.

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Other Claims

There are many claims made (regarding the benefits of antioxidants ) by different organizations, some with some study background , whereas many others without any such studied proof, regarding the benefits of antioxidants. There have been claims that Antioxidants , especially Vitamin E slowed the progression of mid –state Alzheimer’s disease. However, the dose of E that was given in most of these researches was larger than a commonly recommended dosage for anyone – 2,000 IU – and the noted benefits in spite of this were slight. So, as for now there is no evidence to suggest that Vitamin E supplements can protect healthy people from developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, what we have to keep in mind is that while Vitamins and antioxidants are extremely important in thwarting disease and keeping us healthy there is no way we can get the combined benefit of all of them through one source. With the possible exception of Vitamin E, which is easily available at almost all pharmacies and health food shops ,we do not have the facility of being able to get the combined benefits of all the oxidants – a mix of all the nutrients in any pill or potion.

So one has to make sure that as far as good health is concerned it is best to go back to basics when our food consisted of wholesome home cooked variety with an ideal mix of all nutrients from food items like Rice, wheat , dhals and pulses ,fresh vegetables, fruits, dairy products and occasional helpings of meat and sea food. Fruits and vegetables are not only a treasure trove of thousands of chemicals whose benefits are still understood by all, they are also rich in fiber, which is extremely important in the prevention and management of several diseases including diabetes and cancer. Boosting your immune system right from your childhood is the best bet for staying disease free and healthy !

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