The Main Purpose of Antioxidants

Ancient Antioxidant Use

The ancients had a purpose for antioxidants, even without understanding the chemistry behind their use or the health benefits of them.  The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, would use oils high in antioxidants for preserving food.  They might not have totally understood the whys, or even knew they were using antioxidants, but they knew they could keep food better longer.  This makes sense to us, after all reducing oxygen will keep bacteria and other nasty things from attacking the food.

The Main Purpose of Antioxidants Today

Today, however, we see another purpose of antioxidants.  That purpose is this: fighting free radicals.  Numerous studies have shown that free radicals can pose significant damage to our health, including even leading to cancer.  Antioxidants are proven to help fight against free radicals.

What Are Free Radicals?

So the purpose of antioxidants is to kill free radicals.  Ok.  But, what exactly are free radicals?  Political dissidents not in prison?  Something to do with math?  In order to understand the purpose of antioxidants, we must understand what it is they are fighting.

Free radicals are essentially unstable molecules.  Molecules are assortments of atoms that have joined together to create a new unit: the molecule.  Like individual atoms, molecules have electrons which are in constant rotation around the molecule.

What makes free radicals unstable molecules is a missing electron.  In order to remain balanced, a molecule requires a certain number of electrons.  Take one of these electrons away, and the molecule becomes positively charged.  (Electrons carry a negative charge, counteracting the positive charge of protons within the molecular nucleus.  If there are more protons than electrons, the molecule gains a positive charge).

Like us, molecules love to be balanced.  So a free radical, missing an electron, is going to glom itself onto the nearest stable molecule it can find and steal one of its electrons.  The problem is, this could turn the new molecule into a free radical, which will then find another molecule to steal an electron from, causing a chain reaction.

The Purpose of Antioxidants Comes In

Free radicals, in and of themselves, are not necessarily harmful..  In fact, they are a vital part of our body's systems and are created naturally in the body.  Problems come, however, when there are too many free radicals in the body.

Thus we come to the purpose of antioxidants.  They create balance.  Free radicals are formed during oxidation, the natural taking in of oxygen into our cells.  Antioxidants help keep too much oxygen from coming in and creating too many free radicals.  However, while antioxidants certainly have their purpose, balance is very important.  Too many antioxidants can also cause problems.  After all, we require oxygen in our systems in order to function properly.  We do not want the system to swing too far in one direction or the other.
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