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Ageing is a natural process and with it comes the tell-tale signs; grey hair, wrinkled skin, memory loss, impaired immunity and bad joints. Ageing also increases your risk of developing heart problems and even cancer. But there are some biological mechanisms that make us age faster than normal; for example, oxidative damage and glycation.
While we can never entirely turn back the clock, we can still do a lot to prevent premature ageing and live a longer, healthier life. That’s where antioxidants help. Their claim to fame? Antioxidants soak up free radicals known to cause oxidative stress and chronic inflammation – associated with early ageing and resulting poor health.
What are antioxidants and how do they work?
Antioxidants are substances that defend our body from the oxidative damage caused by free radicals – highly reactive molecules that have gained quite a notorious reputation for causing all sorts of disease and disorder in the body.
Free radicals are damaging molecules indeed, but their production in the body is quite normal and not always bad, if it occurs in small amounts. Our body naturally produces free radicals as by-products when it burns oxygen and fuel (carbohydrate, fats and proteins from the food we eat) to create energy for the cells. Our immune system also produces free radicals to fight and destroy invading pathogens.
However, day to day exposure to environmental triggers – such as UV rays, smoking, pollution, processed food, medications, heavy metals, pesticides and insecticides – results in excessive production of free radicals; more than what our body can handle. Unchecked, these surplus free radicals gradually begin to damage the body’s cellular fabric – resulting in chronic inflammation.
Free radicals are highly unstable molecules (with the presence of one or more unpaired electrons). In their quest to attain stability, these molecules are on a constant ‘electron hunting spree’; and target near-by cellular structures, proteins, lipids, DNA and enzymes – robbing them of their electrons, damaging their chemical structure and making these attacked molecules unstable in the process. Eventually, this results in a torrential chain reaction leading to the generation of more and more free radicals.
This increasing free radical activity creates oxidative stress – something that our cells endure on a day to day basis. You would have seen a piece of apple turning brown when exposed to air, or maybe a piece of metal rusting; well, that is oxidative stress at work. It works on our body in the same way, except that it rots or damages the body at the cellular level – that is, from the inside out.
The cumulative effect of this damage is what we see as accelerated ageing, disease and mayhem in the body. This is the premise of free radical theory of ageing or oxidative damage theory of ageing.
It is believed that oxidative damage and the ensuing chronic inflammation are the key contributors to the onset of premature ageing and degenerative health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, obesity, insulin resistance, macular degeneration, cancer and many neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, memory loss and dementia among the elderly.
Antioxidants limit the oxidative damage
Our body is pretty amazing when it comes to self-repair and self-defence. And anti-oxidants play quite an important role in providing the body the tools it needs to do just that. Anti-oxidants pacify electron-hungry free radicals by donating their own electrons; and often get consumed in the process.
Our body produces some of the most powerful anti-oxidants on its own; for example, glutathione, superoxide dismutase, and catalase. Unfortunately, our ability to make these important endogenous antioxidants declines as we age.
We also get a wide variety of antioxidants from the food we eat; for example, vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene, CoQ10, selenium, magnesium and zinc. Phytochemicals, derived from plants, also act as powerful anti-oxidants. Sometimes, it is not possible to get all the anti-oxidants from the food we eat. That’s when taking high quality supplements may help.
Anti-oxidants and healthy ageing
Although antioxidants shield the body from free radicals and help reduce oxidative damage, there is no clear-cut scientific consensus on whether they improve life span. But what most researchers and scientists do agree is that anti-oxidants help in ‘healthy ageing’ .
Healthy ageing is perhaps a better and more practical way of looking at the benefits of anti-oxidants. Anti-oxidants protect tissues and organs from the ravaging effects of oxidative damage, thus keeping them healthy and well-functioning for a long time. Lycopene and resveratrol are a few examples of phytochemicals that help limit oxidative damage and resulting inflammation.
Besides exerting anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties, these natural compounds leverage many other mechanisms to help us live longer and also improve our health span – letting us enjoy a disease-free, vibrant and quality life for a long time.
For example, as an anti-oxidant, resveratrol prevents oxidation of fats in the arteries, lowers cholesterol levels and decreases clot formation – reducing the risk of atherosclerosis, heart attack and stroke. In addition, resveratrol activates a specific class of enzymes called sirtuins. Sirtuins are known to regulate how our cells respond to metabolism and stress – two main players associated with the process of ageing.  More specifically, sirtuins regulate the expression of genes involved in metabolism, stress resistance, inflammation, energy production within the mitochondria and DNA repair, thus delaying premature cellular ageing to some extent.
Similarly, lycopene is a powerful anti-oxidant and targets both intrinsic and extrinsic cellular ageing. Like resveratrol, this carotenoid also works in multiple ways. It reinforces the body’s DNA repair mechanisms, protects LDL cholesterol from oxidation, boosts collagen formation and facilitates improved communication between the cells, required for efficient cellular growth, reproduction, repair and survival.
Anti-oxidants provide a lot of health benefits that manifest in the form of stronger immunity and reduced risk of diseases. They may not turn back the clock for you or even increase your life span, which is determined by a lot of genetics and environmental factors, but anti-oxidants are tremendous tool to achieve graceful, healthy ageing.
- Assmann KE, Andreeva VA, Jeandel C, Hercberg S, Galan P, Kesse-Guyot E. Healthy Aging 5 Years After a Period of Daily Supplementation With Antioxidant Nutrients: A Post Hoc Analysis of the French Randomized Trial SU.VI.MAX. Am J Epidemiol. 2015 Oct 15;182(8):694-704.
- Akiko Satoh, Liana Stein, Shin Imai. The Role of Mammalian Sirtuins in the Regulation of Metabolism, Aging, and Longevity. Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2011; 206: 125–162.