To understand antioxidants, let’s start with how oxygen works in the body. Every minute of every day, we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Although oxygen is used for a variety of vitally important func- tions in the body, it happens to be a very unstable molecule. In the course of the normal chemical reactions that occur in the bloodstream or inside our cells, oxygen can easily be damaged, which is to say it can lose some of its electrons or perhaps gain some. While electrons normally orbit a molecule’s nucleus in as calm and orderly a fashion as the moon circles Earth, oxygen’s electrons can slip into off-kilter orbits.
The point is that we have millions of oxygen molecules in our bodies, and they easily become unstable. When that happens, they become like piranhas, ready to take a bite out of the cells that make up your skin, blood vessels, internal organs, or any other part of your body. These piranhas— these unstable and dangerous oxygen molecules—are called free radicals.
They can even attack your chromosomes, the strands of DNA that lie deep within your cells and hold all the genes that make you who you are. When oxygen free radicals damage chromosomes, cells can lose their ability to control their basic functions. They can begin to multiply out of control, and that is the beginning of cancer. Biologists believe that much of the aging process and many cancers are caused by free radical damage.
Plants can be damaged by oxygen free radicals too, so nature has given them the ability to produce natural compounds that act like shields to defend against these wild oxygen molecules. You can see why these natural compounds are called antioxidants—they protect the plant from oxygen free radicals. And when you eat plants, their antioxidants enter your blood- stream and act to protect you, too. When all goes well, the free radicals— the unstable oxygen molecules—attack the antioxidants and leave your cells and chromosomes alone in the same way that a bullet might dent the hardened surface of an armored car but spare the occupants inside.
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