Oxidative damage has been implicated as the cause of many diseases and disorders in the body. Free radicals generated by our bodies, as well as the environment, bombard our cells every day, causing oxidative damage and contributing to the aging process. Vitamins A, C and E act as antioxidants to quench free radicals and protect your body from oxidative damage.
In simple terms, everything in the universe is made up of tiny building blocks called molecules. Free radicals are unstable molecules that are looking to "steal" particles from other molecules to make themselves more stable. When they steal from molecules in cells of your body, they cause damage to the cells and create even more free radicals. Antioxidants give up parts of their own molecules (while still remaining stable) to stop free radicals and prevent them from damaging your body.
Without adequate levels of antioxidants in the body, free radicals generated from normal metabolic processes as well as from environmental sources like sunlight, pollution and even stress can damage our cells and tissues. Damage to cell membranes, DNA (the genetic blueprint of cells) and other cell structures can disrupt function and impair cell reproduction. Excessive oxidative damage can contribute to development of cancer -- the proliferation of abnormal cells in the body -- or other diseases, such as Alzheimer's and heart disease.
There are both water-soluble and fat-soluble antioxidants. Vitamin C is a water-soluble antioxidant. Water-soluble antioxidants are not stored in the body, so you must obtain vitamin C on a regular basis from your diet or supplements. Fat-soluble antioxidants include vitamins A and E. They need to be taken with a small amount of fat to be absorbed, and are stored in the liver.
The majority of antioxidants in our food are found in fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Unfortunately, the standard Western diet provides little of these healthy foods and instead focuses more on processed, high-fat foods. Processing not only depletes many antioxidants, like B vitamins, in foods, but also removes much of the fiber, making such foods high in calories but low in nutrients. Make sure that you are obtaining 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily as well as 2 to 3 servings of whole grains like brown rice, quinoa or whole wheat.
Take a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement to ensure that you are obtaining adequate levels of antioxidants. Look for a supplement in capsule form, since the process used to make tablets uses high heat and pressure as well as binders that can damage antioxidants and make them less available for your body to absorb and use.
If you are exposed to high levels of pollutants through smog or chemicals at work, spend a lot of time outdoors, are under stress, sick or if people around you are getting sick, take an extra antioxidant supplement. Make sure it includes 25,000 IU of vitamin A as beta-carotene, 500 mg of vitamin C and 400 IU of vitamin E.