As the body performs its varied metabolic functions, chemical reactions are constantly occurring. The function of the immune system is no different. As the body’s immune system gears up its level of vigilance to fend off external attackers such as foreign bacteria or viruses, a series of chemical reactions is triggered that are essentially designed to destroy or at the very least neutralize the attacker. During the course of these chemical reactions, the immune system triggers the release of various compounds from cells that are highly reactive. These reactive compounds are designed to damage the cells of the virus or bacteria, making the attacker less able to proliferate, replicate and cause disease.
Thus, the immune system uses these “free radicals” produced by immune cells to fend off immune challenges. Free radicals by nature are unstable molecules that are missing electrons, which is what makes them highly reactive. They are perpetually in search of electrons that will “quench” their thirst since they are naturally looking to become stable. While the use of free radicals by the immune system and other systems of the body can be highly effective and beneficial in the short-term, the long-term effects of this strategy can be highly detrimental, especially if free radicals aren’t quenched or are produced in excessive amounts. When uncontrolled and out of balance, they can damage tissues and organs much in the same way they damage foreign attackers, leading to severe dysfunction of the affected system and, ultimately, diseases.
What do Antioxidants do?
Fortunately, the body has developed a system of checks and balances to counteract the damage caused by free radicals and the accompanying oxidative stress. This system is a network of key substances that act as electron donors, serving to quench the thirst of free radicals. These molecules are antioxidants. Unlike free radicals, which are missing electrons, antioxidants are generous and are looking to donate their extra electrons. By pairing up with free radicals, antioxidants benefits include stabilizing those molecules and, in the process, donating the electrons free radicals are looking for. This balance or homeostasis serves a key purpose in the body. The presence of sufficient antioxidant capacity allows the body’s metabolic processes to run effectively and allows the immune system to do its job. It can produce free radicals that serve their purpose of neutralizing external threats knowing that the body’s antioxidant system will jump into action at the right time, preventing free radicals from causing collateral damage by friendly fire. Thus, when the system is in harmony and balance, things function well, and the body is happy and healthy.
Health Benefits of Antioxidants
There are two key sources for the body’s antioxidants: first, the body produces them on its own. The body’s major antioxidant is glutathione. Glutathione is produced in our liver and serves as the body’s master antioxidant. Present in cells, glutathione serves to combat the effects of free radicals. One of its major effects is to detoxify the toxins that are created when the body’s free radical load becomes excessive. But being the master antioxidant, glutathione also recycles other antioxidants in the body, such as vitamin C and vitamin E. By helping to regenerate and recycle antioxidants, glutathione ensures that those antioxidants are continually available to donate electrons to free radicals, thus preventing damage from oxidative stress.
The second key source of antioxidants for the body is through the diet. The body extracts and gathers the key antioxidants present in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and other foods and utilizes them alongside its own endogenous antioxidants to fight off oxidative stress. Some key antioxidants that are present in our diet include the antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E, along with zinc, selenium, N-acetylcysteine, and others.
However, another class of compounds known as polyphenols also play a critical role in supporting the body’s antioxidant systems. Polyphenols are the compounds responsible for the bright colors seen in many fruits and vegetables. These compounds serve as a key food source for the healthy bacteria in our gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Once ingested, the residents of our microbiome go to work metabolizing polyphenols. The byproducts of this metabolic process are polyphenolic metabolites. These metabolites are absorbed into circulation from the GI tract and provide a boost to the body’s antioxidant reservoirs. So, ensuring that our body has enough antioxidants to support its metabolic processes is a reason why eating a healthy diet that contains a variety of foods is essential.
Antioxidants and Immune System
Certain highly virulent bacteria and viruses take advantage of what is often a preventable scenario to proliferate and cause serious damage. As we age, our antioxidant needs tend to increase. Since we often consume less antioxidant-rich foods, one of the key sources of antioxidants for the body is significantly impacted. In addition, the body’s endogenous production of antioxidants also often declines with age. This can lead to a potentially disastrous situation that is compounded when the immune system’s reaction to a foreign challenge is to produce high levels of free radicals. In fact, researchers have found that this overactive immune system is more of a problem than the virus or bacteria itself. In this scenario, the virus or bacterial invaders cause the immune system to react by producing free radicals in large amounts. However, the body fails to counterbalance this production because its store of antioxidants (both endogenous and from the diet) is insufficient. The uncontrolled oxidative stress created in this environment leads to significant organ damage and often leads to disease, adverse health outcomes, as well as accelerated aging. In this way, the lack of balance between free radicals and antioxidants is a key factor in determining the severity of outcomes in bacterial or viral infections.
The good news is that there are several ways to mitigate this situation. Properly addressing any chronic diseases or other issues that are present by getting the right treatment is a good first step. In addition, ensuring we continue to consume a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils as we age is of paramount importance and gives us the antioxidant benefits we are looking for. Beyond this, antioxidant supplements can fill key gaps by providing a supplemental source of critical antioxidants, including vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols. By taking these precautions, it is possible to maintain the health of our immune system and body as we age healthfully.