Nearly everyone has heard of antioxidants and the free radicals that they neutralize. Vitamins A, C, E, and other antioxidant vitamins are now household words. We tend to think of free radicals as the “bad guys” and antioxidants as “good guys”. The flame of our life, however, is oxidationthe controlled burning of fuel to produce energy. Free radicals are natural by-products of this process, and are also generated and used by our immune cells in carrying out their ordinary tasks to help maintain a healthy body.
Antioxidants represent the “insulation” that allows us to safely handle this “fire”, thus protecting our cells while the fire “warms our house”. Processes that increase production of free radicals are collectively referred to as “oxidative stress”.
Cellular protection is determined by the balance between oxidative stress and antioxidant intake, along with the reserves maintained in your body.
There is a baseline level of oxidative stress simply from using oxygen to burn fuel for the production of energy, which is necessary to stay alive and be active.
Many factors of modern life, however, have increased oxidative stress dramatically: smoking (both active and passive), alcohol, non-prescription and prescription drugs, environmental pollution, high altitude jet travel, and exposure to other chemicals. Cigarette smoke, for example, contains thousands of different chemicals, and a single puff of cigarette smoke contains trillions of free radicals. Cigarette smoke literally burns away antioxidant nutrients. Cigarette tars are long-lived free radical generators.