Antioxidants are substances that may protect your cells against the effects of free radicals. Free radicals are molecules produced when your body breaks down food, or by environmental exposures like tobacco smoke and radiation. Free radicals can damage cells, and may play a role in heart disease, cancer and other diseases.
There are several nutrients in food that contain antioxidants. Vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene are among the most commonly studied dietary antioxidants.
Vitamin C is the most important water-soluble antioxidant in extracellular fluids. Vitamin C helps to neutralize ROS in the water or aqueous phase before it can attack the lipids.
Vitamin E is the most important lipid soluble antioxidant. It is important as the chain-breaking antioxidant within the cell membrane. It can protect the membrane fatty acids from lipid peroxidation. Vitamin C in addition is capable of regenerating vitamin E.
Beta carotene and other carotenoids also have antioxidant properties. Carotenoids work in synergy with vitamin E.
A diet low in fats may impair absorption of beta carotene and vitamin E and other fat-soluble nutrients. Fruits and vegetables are important sources of vitamin C and carotenoids. Whole grains and high quality vegetable oils are major sources of vitamin E.
Many plant-derived substances are known as “phytonutrients,” or “phytochemicals”. These also possess antioxidant properties. Phenolic compounds such as flavonoids are such chemicals. These are found in several fruits, vegetables, green tea extracts etc.
Apart from diet, the body also has several antioxidant mechanisms that can protect itself from ROS mediated damage. The antioxidant enzymes – glutathione peroxidase, catalase, and superoxide dismutase (SOD) are such enzymes. They require micronutrient cofactors such as selenium, iron, copper, zinc, and manganese for their activity. It has been suggested that an inadequate dietary intake of these trace minerals may also lead to low antioxidant activity.