When molecules in our body split, their bonds are weakened and free radicals are formed. They are highly unstable and react quickly with other compounds in the body. They react as they try to locate an electron to gain stability. Free radicals tend to attack the nearest stable molecule and steal the disrupted electron that becomes available. The attacked molecule, having lost an electron, becomes a free radical itself. A cascade reaction occurs, resulting in the disruption of a living cell. Some are created during metabolism, whereas the immune system may create them to combat viruses and bacteria. Environmental factors such as pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and herbicides can all contribute to the creation of free radicals.
To counteract the effects, the body uses antioxidants to remove them and prevent them from damaging cells. If antioxidants are unavailable or the production of free radicals is excessive, cells may experience damage. Damage accumulates with age. Vitamins C and E are thought to protect the body against them. Antioxidants neutralise them by donating an electron which effectively ends the chain of cell disruption and stealing electrons.
Antioxidants dont actually pose a risk to health as they are extremely stable. They protect the body by removing them and preventing tissue and cellular damage. This helps to protect the body from disease. Vitamin E is the most abundant fat soluble antioxidant in the body. It protects against oxidation (transfer of electrons) and lipid peroxidation (the creation of unstable molecules containing more oxygen than is usual). Vitamin C is the most water soluble antioxidant in the body. It acts primarily in cellular fluid. It is especially effective at counteracting pollutants such as from cigarette smoke and environmental pollution. Vitamin C is highly effective at combating cancers of the mouth, larynx and oesophagus.
Vitamin E may help to protect against cardiovascular disease by preventing LDL oxidation and plaque formation that can block arteries. Eating five portions of fruit and vegetables every day is the best way to reduce the damaging effects of free radicals. Consuming fresh fruits and vegetables may also contain other chemical substances such as bioflavonoids which may help to protect the body. These may be released through chewing the foods so can be difficult to find elsewhere. Consuming too many antioxidant nutrients is not recommended though as the long term effects are unclear and may prove to be toxic, especially in the case of fat soluble vitamins which are stored within the body.