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Antioxidants: What and What They Are



To live, cells need oxygen. While on the one hand this molecule is essential for the survival of the cells themselves, on the other hand, in particular circumstances, it can become harmful and give rise to free radicals.

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Free Radicals

Free radicals are molecules or ions that contain one or more unpaired electrons and are capable of autonomous existence.

Free radicals are produced in most of the body's cells (mitochondria) as a by-product of certain metabolic reactions.

Free radicals are considered responsible for most degenerative diseases, aging and, perhaps, even cancer (mutations).

Many factors can trigger the generation of free radicals:

Among the most important free radicals found in aerobic cells, such as human cells, are superoxides (O2 ), hydrogen peroxide also known as hydrogen peroxide (H2O2 ) and singlet oxygen.

All cellular structures can be damaged by interaction with oxidizing species:

  • PHOSPHOLIPIDS: alteration of membrane fluidity
  • NUCLEIC ACIDS: appearance of break points in the DNA double helix with increased risk of mutations
  • PROTEINS: metabolic (enzymes) and structural alterations

Endogenous antioxidants

The body has developed numerous mechanisms to protect itself from the harmful effects of free radicals; for example, there are some enzymes capable of decomposing and sequestering oxidizing agents.

Among these endogenous antioxidants we remember superoxide dismutase, catalase and the most effective antioxidant, glutathione (whose integration occurs via one of the precursor amino acids, N-acetyl cysteine).

Glutathione incorporates selenium, an exogenous antioxidant that appears to decrease cancer risk.

The cell also has additional defense mechanisms available if the function of endogenous antioxidants is not sufficient.

In recent years there has been a lot of talk about the antioxidant power of melatonin which according to some studies exceeds the “scavenger” activity of glutathione by five times.

Exogenous antioxidants

Some substances present in foods and in some food supplements are able to intervene favorably in detoxification processes, activating biological repair systems. These natural antioxidants are vitamins A, C, E, selenium, carotenoids, lycopene, coenzyme Q-10 and lipoic acid. For further information see: Antioxidant foods

Antioxidants and Sports

During aerobic physical exercise the body's oxygen consumption can increase up to 20 times and in skeletal muscle up to 100 times. While on the one hand this mechanism allows the quantity of energy produced to be increased, on the other hand it also dangerously increases the production of oxidizing agents.

In general, muscle oxidative stress is increased by acute exercise and decreased by training.

Sporting activity also improves the disposal mechanisms by enhancing the activity of endogenous antioxidants. This characteristic explains why physical exercise makes people who practice it regularly appear more beautiful and younger.

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