You need vitamins and minerals to make all those thousands of enzymes, hormones, and other chemicals your body needs to work right. But vitamins and minerals have another crucial role in your body: They act as powerful antioxidants that capture free radicals in your body. It's only in the past few decades that we've begun to understand how damaging free radicals can be and how important it is to have plenty of antioxidants in your body to neutralize them.
When oxygen combines with glucose in your cells, for example, you make energy—and you also make free radicals, your body's version of exhaust fumes. Free radicals are oxygen atoms that are missing one electron from the pair the atom should have. When an atom is missing an electron from a pair, it becomes unstable and very reactive. That's because a free radical desperately wants to find another electron to fill in the gap, so it grabs an electron from the next atom it gets near. But when a free radical seizes an electron from another atom, the second atom then becomes a free radical, because now it's the one missing an electron. One free radical starts a cascade of new free radicals in your body. The free radicals blunder around, grabbing electrons from your cells—and doing a lot of damage to them at the same time.
Fighting Back with Antioxidants
Antioxidants are your body's natural defense against free radicals. Antioxidants are enzymes that patrol your cells looking for free radicals. When they find one, they grab hold of it and neutralize it without being damaged themselves. The antioxidant enzymes stop the invasion and remove the free radical from circulation.
You have to have plenty of vitamins and minerals, especially Vitamin A, beta carotene, Vitamin C, Vitamin E and selenium, in your body to make the antioxidant enzymes that do the neutralizing. If you're short on the right vitamins and minerals, you can't make enough of the antioxidant enzymes.
That lets the free radicals get the upper hand and do extra damage to your cells before they get quenched.
Oxidation isn't the only thing that can cause free radicals in your cells. The ultraviolet light in sunshine can do it—that's why people who spend too much time in the sun are more likely to get skin cancer and cataracts. Toxins of all sorts—tobacco smoke, the natural chemicals found in our food, the poisonous wastes of your own metabolism, and man-made toxins like air pollution and pesticides—trigger free radicals as well.
On average, every cell in your body comes under attack from a free radical once every ten seconds. Your best protection is to keep your antioxidant levels high.
The Least You Need to Know
• Vitamins (organic substances) and minerals (inorganic substances) are necessary for life and good health.
• Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble: They are stored in your body's fatty tissues.
• The B vitamins and Vitamin C are water-soluble: Your body can't store them, so you need some every day.
• Vitamins and minerals are needed to make the thousands of different enzymes your body needs to live.
• Free radicals are unstable oxygen atoms made in your body as part of normal metabolism. They are very reactive and can damage your cells.
• Antioxidant enzymes capture and neutralize free radicals.