You'd have to be living under a rock not to have heard of antioxidants and been rightly reminded of their importance to your health, but have you ever wondered what these crucial nutritional substances actually do?

To fully understand the role of antioxidants, you first have to understand oxidants. Oxidants, more commonly known as free radicals, are highly reactive molecules. This reactivity, which is caused by their uneven number of electrons, allows free radicals to easily bind to other cells in your body, which they can then damage. Antioxidants, which have an extra electron, work by binding to these free radicals instead, thus preventing their destructive effects.

Abnormally high levels of free radicals in the body can be caused by smoking, toxins, alcohol intake, radiation, abnormal oxygen levels, infections, high sugar intake, and overexercise. Yet free radicals are also created by normal body processes, and are even necessary for normal heart and immune system function.

However, excessive levels of free radicals without counter-balancing antioxidants can put your body into a state of oxidative stress, which has been linked to diseases as dangerous and diverse as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, immune deficiencies, vision loss, multiple sclerosis, and emphysema.

Your body can make some of its own antioxidants, but to maintain a proper equilibrium, you also need to get some from your diet. Antioxidants are most abundant in plant-based foods, but most meat products also contain a smaller amount.

Antioxidants also aren't interchangeable; different antioxidants have different effects, which is why it's so important to eat a balanced but varied diet that includes many different types of vegetables and fruits. Antioxidants are also plentiful in healthy beverages like coffee and green tea.

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Of course, as usual, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing; overly high levels of antioxidants may have a toxic effect, which is why it's best to get your antioxidants naturally from food rather than supplements. Supplemental antioxidants can also interfere with some medications, so you probably shouldn't start taking them unless you've talked about it with your doctor.

Antioxidants are not strictly "necessary" for your body in the same way vitamins are, even though they ultimately exert a huge effect on your health. However, some vitamins, particularly A, C, and E, can also have an antioxidant effect.

You also may want to look into your food's antioxidant content before cooking it; many antioxidants can be destroyed or diminished during the cooking process, especially during methods like boiling that require your food to be exposed to heat for longer periods of time.

Another way to add more antioxidants to your diet is by incorporating more healthy herbs and spices, and by keeping an eye on your food's colors. Usually, the brighter the hue, the higher the antioxidant content.

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Hopefully, you now have a better idea of how antioxidants protect your health and where you can find them; now all you have to worry about is eating them up!

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