The human body requires many different substances to run properly. For example, oxygen is required to make sure that every cell in the body can use the energy provided by food. Nutrients are converted into energy that each cell in the body uses to perform basic functions and regulate chemicals and other substances.
Since each process within the body is separate, it may seem as though one aspect can exist without the other. However, all these separate processes rely on the other to ensure that they can do their job properly. Think of your body as a super-efficient factory that needs every linesperson doing their part to complete the project.
One such process that requires a lot of outside help is the immune system. Immunity is your body’s defense system and protects you against illness, but without nutrients and other systems running as they should, that defense system can become powerless to stop infection or chronic disease. One particular piece of the immunity puzzle is antioxidants – but what are antioxidants, exactly, and what is the role of antioxidants in immune function?
Antioxidants are important molecules that exist within the body and can also be consumed through diet. They are mostly found in fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods. Some vitamins, including vitamins E and C, can effectively act as antioxidants within the body as well.
Antioxidants play an important role in the body because they neutralize free radicals, which are compounds that help to fight off pathogens. Free radicals can react with other molecules with ease, and because of this, they can cause certain reactions known as oxidation. Oxidation can be both good and bad, depending on how much it occurs.
Antioxidants and free radicals need to be in balance so that they can support your health. If the body doesn’t get enough antioxidants, free radicals can build up, and when levels are too high, they can cause damage to proteins, fatty tissue, and even your DNA.
Too much oxidation within the body can lead to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress and the damage caused by an overabundance of free radicals can lead to chronic disease such as inflammatory conditions, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s.
Both antioxidants and free radicals have an effect on the immune system. It’s because of free radicals that antioxidants are important for immunity. Since free radicals are helpful when they are in balance, as mentioned above, they need to remain at a steady level. Antioxidants help to achieve that stabilization.
To understand the process in more complex terms, we have to understand how immunity and free radicals are connected. Neutrophils are cells that are part of the immune system. They are tasked with regulating how B-cells, or immune cells, respond to pathogens. When there is a pathogen present in the body, these neutrophils begin working their magic.
When they become activated, they produce free radicals as part of the inflammatory process. While many people think of inflammation as a bad thing, it is actually an important step in defense process, because it acts as a sort of signal to where in the body immune cells need to go. Free radicals are needed for that inflammatory process. When there are too many free radicals, and the inflammatory process is occurring all over the place, the immune system doesn’t know how to react. That is where antioxidants come in to balance it all out for proper immune protection and response.
Another important immunity task in which antioxidants may play a role is hindering the free radicals’ ability to help viruses replicate within the body. They help to interfere with this process when a virus or other pathogen comes into the body to cause harm. According to research, the antioxidants’ ability to do this may even help in the treatment of certain viral diseases.
Another important aspect of antioxidant stores within the body is the way they help with antibodies, which are specialized proteins designed to fight off infection. Antibodies are created by the immune system in response to certain pathogens and are specifically designed to fight off one type of virus or other illness. For example, if a person were to get a particular strain of the flu, their body would create antibodies that remember that specific strain. If that strain of flu came around again, those specialized antibodies would be ready to fight off the infection.
This is connected to antioxidants because research has found that these helpful molecules can actually aid in producing more antibodies in response to an infection. One study examined antibody levels in healthy older adults who were given vitamin E supplements to act as antioxidants. When the subjects of the study were given hepatitis B and tetanus vaccines, it was found that they had a more powerful immune response.
This draws the conclusion that antioxidants not only neutralize free radicals, allowing the body’s immune system to function as it should, but they also play a role in the power and number of viable antibodies protecting the body against infection.
While antioxidants aren’t the be-all-end-all when it comes to immune health, they certainly play a larger role than medical researchers once thought in protecting you against both infection and chronic disease.