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How Do Antioxidants Work in the Body?

By Alison Smith

The body produces and ingests volatile chemicals called free radicals. We breathe these in from the air and acquire them when exposed to radiation. Free radicals are also a byproduct of converting food into energy. Once in the body, free radicals are destructive. They alter cellular structure and function. They initiate disease processes and damage the DNA, or genetic material of the cells, thus disrupting normal, healthy cellular function. Antioxidants are substances, ingested from foods that prevent free radical damage in the body, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.


Antioxidants are in foods, and many substances act as antioxidants. These include vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin A, beta-carotene, lutein, selenium, manganese, lycopene, coenzyme Q10, glutathione, lipoic acid and plant flavonoids, phenols, phytoestrogens and polyphenols, according to Medline Plus and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Free Radicals

The smallest particle in the body is an atom. When atoms join, molecules form. When molecules join, they create bodily tissues. Circling around atoms are electrons, small electrically charged particles that act as a magnet to attract other atoms. Free radicals lack the normal amount of electrons; therefore, they steal electrons from normal, healthy atoms. When free radicals steal electrons, this damages cells of the body, according to Dr. Gerard Tortora and Dr. Bryan Derrickson and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Antioxidant Effects

Free radicals damage body tissues by stealing electrons from the atoms that constitute the tissues. Antioxidants provide the free radicals with electrons, protecting body tissues from free radical damage, according to Penn State University.

Free Radical Sources

The body naturally produces free radicals when converting food to energy. Free radicals result mainly from a diet rich in animal fats, food preservatives and additives, and soft drinks. Free radicals also enter the body from air pollution, cigarette smoke, radiation, stress, infections and environmental pollutants such as pesticides, says Clemson University.

Antioxidant Sources

The top antioxidant-rich foods include blueberries, beans, cranberries, blackberries, artichokes, prunes, strawberries, raspberries, nuts, apples and potatoes. Fruits and vegetables that are naturally dark green, red, orange, yellow, blue or purple are typically high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are also available in supplement form, according to Clemson University.

Antioxidant Health Effects

Free radical damage can cause cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and vision loss. Although, scientific studies have not linked the benefits of antioxidant consumption to established disease processes, the consumption of fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants is beneficial for the prevention of disease, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

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