As with many discussions surrounding nutrition, health and dietary topics, antioxidants are often discussed without truly understanding how they work and why they are such an important part of the human body.
This can be particularly important when we discuss how a liver antioxidant such as honey can help to avoid issues such as fatty liver disease and cirrhosis.
Whilst if you eat foods that encourage liver health and top-up any antioxidants you are missing from your diet, it can be helpful to understand exactly what process antioxidants aim to stop.
What Is Oxidation?
Antioxidants work to stop a chemical reaction known as oxidation, which occurs when an atom, ion or molecule loses electrons, usually working in conjunction with a reduction which is where another molecule gains an electron.
Most chemical reactions are redox reactions and can sometimes be quite violent in nature, such as when sodium is placed into water and starts to catch fire and react.
These reactions also take place in the body as part of cellular respiration and this is what can lead to the creation of free radicals.
What Are Free Radicals?
Free radicals are molecules with an extra unpaired electron, making them more likely to react to other molecules.
Free radicals are not inherently bad, and your immune system uses free radicals to battle infections.
However, if left uncontrolled, free radicals can cause oxidation and too much of this creates a body state known as oxidative stress, which damages important molecules and the DNA of your body.
DNA damage, it is theorised, is the primary reason why we undergo the ageing process as well as increasing the risk of cancerous cells forming, as well as increasing the risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes.
Free radicals are naturally formed, but certain diets, such as those rich in sugar and fat can promote excessive oxidative stress, as can pollution, smoking and alcohol.
Prolonged and intensified oxidative stress can lead to cell death and potential considerable health issues, which makes antioxidants even more vital.
How Do Antioxidants Stop Free Radicals?
Free radical cause chain reactions with other cells through the extra unpaired electron they have and this is what can cause cell damage and mutations.
Antioxidants stop this by giving an electron to the free radical, neutralising it and stopping it from reacting with other cells.
Different antioxidants have different effects and work in different places in the body, so it is important to a varied diet of antioxidants.
Typically, foods rich in vitamins A, C and E are also rich in antioxidants, and there are supplements, spices and plants that are also rich in them.
The ultimate aim of antioxidant diets is not to eradicate free radicals entirely, as several of them have important purposes in the body such as helping fight infection.
Instead, it is about keeping free radicals at a level where they can perform the functions they need to without allowing them to cause damage to DNA.