Gargling With OJ: The Specificity of Antioxidants

Antioxidants are emerging as a vital roadway to health. They are clearing the path of free radicals and oxidative stress, fighting inflammation, and carrying the torch for oral and systemic health. There are several thousand antioxidants, including enzymes, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients and compounds. Some antioxidants are produced within the body; others must be provided by external sources. More and more common and exotic foods—everything from acai berries to zucchini—are being touted for their antioxidant content.

So, if antioxidants are so ubiquitous, why is it such a challenge to deploy them into the battle for human health? If orange juice is loaded with vitamin C, how come you can’t gargle with it to cure a sore throat?

Not All Antioxidants Are Equal

Not all antioxidants work in the same way, and they don’t all neutralize the same free radicals. Most antioxidants have enormous, complicated molecular structures. The configuration of atoms and ions makes each antioxidant very specific in the types of free radicals and the types of tissue—skin cells, bone cells, membranes, plasma—where they will be effective.

Antioxidants can be classified as water-soluble or lipid-soluble. Water-soluble antioxidants react with molecules in the blood plasma or with the cytosol inside a cell. Many lipid-soluble antioxidants have a role in protecting cell membranes from per-oxidation of the lipid molecules.

Different antioxidants work in different ways. Some are “chain-breaking.” That is, as one free radical attacks another molecule and steals an electron, the attacked molecule itself becomes a free radical, seeking electrons from other molecules. This chain of stealing electrons continues until antioxidants can stabilize the free radicals.  Some antioxidants work in a preventive mode by scavenging free radicals before they can begin the chain of electron-stealing oxidation.

Synergistic Combinations

Scientists around the world are racing to identify which antioxidants work on which free radicals. In addition, research has shown that sometimes combinations of two or more antioxidants work synergistically to multiply the effectiveness of a single antioxidant. The molecular concentration of the antioxidants makes a difference in effectiveness as well.

Because of all the variables involved in antioxidants, laboratory research is laborious and sophisticated. In the early 1990s, a team of dermatologists and chemists identified a handful of antioxidants that protected skin cells from free radical damage. Two of these antioxidants included phloretin and ferulic acid. Intensive research determined an optimal combination of these compounds that became the basis of SkinCeuticals, a high-end skin care product line that continues to be powerful and effective.

More recently, scientists at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry have examined the effects of these same antioxidants on oral cells. The research has shown that certain combinations of phloretin and ferulic acid are highly effective at neutralizing free radicals in oral cells that are caused by nicotine, alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide—some of the most common toxins introduced to the oral cavity. These antioxidants have been compounded into products that can be applied topically—directly to the tissues in the oral cavity—to begin working immediately at attacking free radicals and reducing inflammation.