How can antioxidants keep me young?

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
To understand antioxidants, let's first think about the oxygen. You know that oxygen is necessary for our bodies to function at all. Breathing is fundamental to living. When you breathe, oxygen enters your bloodstream and is transported to our cells. Once it enters your cells, oxygen forms the basis of many of our cells' most fundamental processes. This same oxygen, however, in the form of unstable molecules or ions called oxygen radicals (or free radicals), can oxidize your tissues -- that is, cause those tissues to rust. As a result, oxygen waste products, called lipofuscins, build up in organs such as the heart and brain, leaving brown discoloration on the tissues. Oxidation may not be the basic problem. There may be a more fundamental problem such as inflammation, or something else that causes immune dysfunction. Whatever the cause, these brown spots are signs of aging. The older you get, the more prevalent they become.

Imagine apples. If you slice an apple and leave it out in the air, it will soon turn brown. Exposed to air, the surface of the apple oxidizes (combines with oxygen). This process is similar to what happens when oxygen radicals build up in your body. If you were to take that same apple and sprinkle lemon juice on the slices, they would stay white. The apple does not turn brown because lemon juice is full of vitamin C, which works as an antioxidant. Lemon juice stops the oxidation process and keeps the apple from "rusting." In your body, antioxidants such as vitamins C and E do the same thing.

Think of your body as an exclusive club. Free radicals are the visitors who crash the scene without an invitation. They are so pesky, the body can't get rid of them without some help. Antioxidants function as a kind of security system, the bouncers. They seek out the roving oxygen radicals and bind to them -- a kind of chemical handcuff. Bound together, the free radical and the antioxidant form an entity that the body can then flush out through the kidneys. As long as you have enough bouncers, free radicals and lipofuscins (oxygen waste products) won't build up in the body. And your body literally has an army of antioxidants built in to protect you. Vitamins C and E seem to augment this army's work.

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