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Physiological Role of Antioxidants in the Immune System.

Diets contain naturally occurring antioxidant compounds that can stabilize highly reactive, potentially harmful molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are generated during normal cellular metabolism and result from the metabolism of certain drugs or xenobiotics.

Exposure to UV light, cigarette smoke, and other environmental pollutants also increases the body's free radical burden. The harmful activities of free radicals are associated with damage to membranes, enzymes, and DNA. The ability of antioxidants to destroy free radicals protects the structural integrity of cells and tissues.

This review focuses on data indicating that the functions of the human immune system depend on the intake of micronutrients, which can act as antioxidants. Recent clinical trials have found that antioxidant supplementation can significantly improve certain immune responses. Specifically, supplementation with vitamins C, E, and A or ß-carotene increased the activation of cells involved in tumor immunity in the elderly. Supplementation with the antioxidant vitamins also protected immune responses in individuals exposed to certain environmental sources of free radicals.

Supplementation with vitamin A, a relatively weak antioxidant, decreases morbidity and mortality associated with measles infections in children.