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Year : 2009  |  Volume : 21  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 1-6 Table of Contents   

Antioxidants: Enhancing oral and general health

Department of Oral Medicine, Diagnosis and Radiology, KLE'S V. K. Institute of Dental Sciences, Belgaum, Karnataka, India

Date of Web Publication14-Nov-2009

Correspondence Address:
Arvind Shetti
Department of Oral Medicine and Radiology, KLE'S V. K. Institute of Dental Sciences, Belgaum, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0972-1363.57770

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Free radicals and antioxidant therapy have attracted a great deal of attention in recent years. Antioxidants are compounds that destroy the free radicals in the body, thereby preventing harmful oxidation-reduction reactions. Antioxidants are critical for maintaining optimum health and well-being. The best sources of antioxidants are fruits and vegetables, which provide a variety of antioxidants such as Vitamins A, C, E, and carotenoids. Currently available data are compatible with the notion that these vitamins act as chemopreventives against some important cancers, e.g., carotenoids for lung cancer, ascorbic acid for salivary gland cancer, tocopherols for head and neck cancers, etc. Thus, a greater consumption of fruits and vegetables should be encouraged as they are the natural sources of these chemopreventive antioxidants along with other protective factors packaged by nature.

Keywords: Antioxidants, beta carotene, free radicals, lycopene, oral cancer

How to cite this article:
Shetti A, Keluskar V, Aggarwal A. Antioxidants: Enhancing oral and general health. J Indian Acad Oral Med Radiol 2009;21:1-6

How to cite this URL:
Shetti A, Keluskar V, Aggarwal A. Antioxidants: Enhancing oral and general health. J Indian Acad Oral Med Radiol [serial online] 2009 [cited 2022 Aug 18];21:1-6. Available from: https://www.jiaomr.in/text.asp?2009/21/1/1/57770

   Introduction Top

Antioxidants are substances that are capable of counteracting the damaging, but normal, effects of the physiological process of oxidation in animal tissue. Antioxidants are nutrients (vitamins and minerals) as well as enzymes (proteins in the body that assist in chemical reactions).

   Concept of Free Radicals Top

Free radicals are chemically active atoms that have a charge due to an excess or deficient number of electrons. Free radicals containing oxygen, known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), are the most biologically significant free radicals. ROS include the radicals superoxide and hydroxyl. Free radicals and other reactive oxygen species are derived either from normal essential metabolic processes in the human body or from external sources such as exposure to X-rays, ozone, cigarette smoking, air pollutants, and industrial chemicals. Because they have one or more unpaired electrons, free radicals are highly unstable. They scavenge the body to grab or donate electrons, thereby damaging cells, proteins, and DNA.

   Diseases Caused by Free Radicals Top
[Figure 1]

The Antioxidant Process

Antioxidants block the process of oxidation by neutralizing free radicals. In doing so, the antioxidants themselves become oxidized. Because of this, there is a constant need to replenish our antioxidant resources. The effectiveness of any given antioxidant in the body depends on which free radical is involved, how and where it is generated, and the target of damage. Thus, an antioxidant in one particular system may protect against free radicals, while in another it could have no effect at all.

   Classification Top

Types of Antioxidants

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is the major antioxidant in all cellular membranes and it protects polyunsaturated fatty acids against oxidation. [8] Because it is fat-soluble, it safeguards cell membranes from damage by free radicals. Alpha-tocopherol also protects the fats in low-density lipoproteins from oxidation.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C scavenges free radicals that are in an aqueous environment, such as inside the cells. It is believed to be the most important antioxidant in extracellular fluids and it has many known intracellular activities as well. [8] Vitamin C works synergistically with Vitamin E to quench free radicals.


Beta-carotene is the best quencher of singlet oxygen (an energized but uncharged form of oxygen that is toxic to cells). Beta-carotene is also especially used for scavenging free radicals in areas of low oxygen concentration.


Selenium is a trace element. It forms the active site of several antioxidant enzymes including glutathione peroxidase. Similar to selenium, the minerals manganese and zinc are trace elements that form an essential part of various antioxidant enzymes.

   Antioxidant-Enzymes Top

Superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase serve as your primary line of defense [Chart 1] in destroying free radicals [Figure 2] and [Figure 3].

   Mechanism of Action of Antioxidants Top

Antioxidants neutralise free radicals by donating one of their electrons, which ends the electron stealing reaction. The antioxidant nutrient, however, does not become a free radical by donating an electron because they are stable in either form. Important antioxidants include the following:

  1. Chain breaking or scavenging ones, such as Vitamin E (alpha tocopherol), Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), or Vitamin A (beta carotene)
  2. Preventative antioxidants that function largely by sequestering transition metal ions and preventing Fenton reactions and are therefore largely proteins by nature (e.g., albumin, transferring, or lactoferrin)

   Lycopene Top

Lycopene is one of the most potent antioxidants primarily present in tomatoes. [4] Lycopene has been hypothesized to prevent carcinogenesis and atherogenesis by protecting critical cellular biomolecules, including lipids, lipoproteins, proteins, and DNA. [1],[2],[3] In recent studies, serum and tissue levels of lycopene were shown to be inversely associated with the risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, coronary heart disease, [7] and oral premalignant lesions. According to various studies, lycopene, when given in the dosage of 4-8 mg/day orally for 3 months, [6] leads to the reversal of dysplastic changes in leukoplakia and when given in the dosage of 16 mg/day [13] leads to substantials increase in the mouth opening in oral submucous fibrosis. Estimating the daily intake of lycopene has been difficult due to the variability of reported values in the food sources. On average, the daily intake of lycopene is estimated to be 3.7 mg [12] [Figure 4] and [Figure 5].

   Beta Carotene Top

The carotenoids are a group of red, orange, and yellow pigments found in fruits and vegetables. [8] These include b-carotene (carrots), lycopene (tomatoes), and lutein (spinach). [11] Carotenes have an excellent property of free radical trapping, especially peroxyl and hydroxyl radicals, which are involved in the genesis of cancers and aging. Beta carotene also increases cell mediated immune responses due to increased monocyte expression and increased activity of the tumor necrosis factor alpha. Serum beta carotene levels have been shown to decrease in various oral premalignant lesions and conditions and its supplementation (30 mg/day) [16] have led to the regression of the lesions.

   Phytochemicals Top

These are non nutrient compounds that have biological activity inside the human body. They provide colors, taste, and aromas to the fruits and vegetables. They mimic hormones and suppress the development of diseases. Phenolic compounds such as flavonoids have been demonstrated to have anti-inflammatory, anti-allergenic, anti-viral, anti-aging, and anti-carcinogenic activity. [9],[10] In addition to an antioxidant effect, flavonoid compounds may exert protection against heart disease through the inhibition of cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase activities in platelets and macrophages [10] [Figure 6]and [Figure 7].

   Therapeutic Use of Antioxidants for Oral Lesions Top

The possible uses of antioxidants for oral mucosal lesions include the following:

  1. Prevention of lesions in high-risk individuals with mucosa that clinically appears normal with no history of either premalignant or malignant lesion
  2. The treatment of premalignant oral lesions
  3. In patients who have had either premalignant or malignant oral lesions that have been successfully treated, in order to prevent recurrence of the treated initial lesion or to prevent the development of a second or a separate primary

   Antioxidants and the Prevention of Cancer Top

Antioxidants play a role in the later stages of cancer development. DNA damage is considered to be one of the most important contributors to cancer. Much of this damage is oxidative in nature. Antioxidants may be able to cause the regression of premalignant lesions or inhibit their development into cancer. Preliminary studies have indicated that some antioxidants, particularly ß-carotene, may be of benefit in the treatment of precancerous conditions such as oral leukoplakia, which may be a precursor to oral cancer. [8] Some antioxidant nutrients may protect against cancer through mechanisms other than their antioxidant properties. For example, carotenoids may both enhance immune function and increase gap junctional communication (a type of interaction between cells that inhibits cell proliferation); both of these actions may be relevant to cancer prevention. [8] In general, high intake of fruits and vegetables are associated with a protective effect against cancer. Both biochemical and epidemiologic studies have indicated that antioxidant nutrients may have important protective effects in the prevention of human cancer [Figure 8].

   Protective Roles of Micronutrients in Carcinogenesis Top

Nutrients and their functions

1. Beta-carotene

Precursor of Vitamin A

Anti-oxidant and free radical scavenging

Immunomodulation, stimulation of increase in the numbers of T-helper and NK cells as well as cells with IL-2 receptors

Inhibition of mutagenesis

Inhibition of cancer cell growth

2. Vitamin A (retinoids)

Inhibits keratinization and terminal differentiation of epidermal cells

Enhancement of cellular immunity

Arrest/reverse leukoplakia progression

Induction of cytotoxic and cytostatic effects on cancer cells

Influence DNA, RNA, and gene expression

Interfere with carcinogenic stimulation and binding

3. Vitamin E (A-tocopherol)

Free radical scavenging

Maintenance of membrane integrity, immune function

Inhibition of cancer cell growth/differentiation


Inhibits mutagenicity and nitrosamine formation

Inhibition of DNA and RNA, protein synthesis in cancer cells

4. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)


Reduces vitamin E degradation

Enhances chemotaxis, phagocytosis, collagen synthesis

Inhibits nitrosamine formation

Enhances detoxification via cytochrome P450

Blocks formation of fecal mutagens

Reduces oncogene expression

   Efficacy of a Mixture of Antioxidant Vitamins Top

Individual antioxidant vitamins produce varying degrees of tumor regression only at very high doses, which frequently causes toxicity, especially with retinoid derivatives. At lower doses, they may be ineffective or stimulate the growth of cancer cells. Therefore, the use of single vitamins in cancer treatment has no biological or clinical merit. Lower doses of individual vitamins 13-cis-retinoic acid, sodium ascorbate, d-a-tocopheryl succinate, and polar carotenoids without any b-carotene as part of a mixture can be used in cancer treatment and thereby avoid the possibility of the toxicity seen with the single vitamins at higher doses, or growth stimulation seen at lower doses. [11]

   Choices of Antioxidants Top

Different antioxidants show substantially different antioxidant effectiveness in different fats, oils, and food systems due to different molecular structures. We should consider the safety, effectiveness, odor, color, convenience of antioxidant incorporation to foods, stability to pH and food processing, availability, and cost of the particular antioxidant before prescribing it to the patient.

   Controversial Areas in Antioxidants Therapy Top

Current literature reports that a half century of data demonstrates the lack of predictability of antioxidant therapy and it has not been validated by the scientific method. Widespread use of antioxidants has failed to quell the current pandemic of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease or to stop or reverse the aging process. Antioxidant therapy in human reproductive medicine is controversial. High doses of Vitamin A may have embryotoxic and teratogenic effects. [14] Large doses of ascorbic acid may be associated with the inhibition of ovarian steroidogenesis and increased probability of abortion. [15]

   Conclusion Top

Protection against free radicals can be enhanced by an ample intake of dietary antioxidants, of which the best studied are Vitamin E, Vitamin C, and carotenoids. Substantial evidence indicates that foods containing antioxidants and possibly in particular the antioxidant nutrients may be of major importance in disease prevention. Efforts should be made to ensure an optimum intake of foods containing these important molecules. Finally, it can be concluded that the following sayings ring true:



   References Top

1.Agarwal S, Rao AV. Tomato lycopene and low density lipoprotein oxidation: A human dietary intervention study. Lipids 1998;33:981-4.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.Rao V. Bioavailability and in vivo antioxidant properties of lycopene from tomato products and their possible role in the prevention of cancer. Nutr Cancer 1998;31:199-203.  Back to cited text no. 2      
3.Pool-Zobel BL, Bub A, Muller H, Wollowski I, Rechkemmer G. Consumption of vegetables reduces genetic damage in humans: First result of a human intervention trial with carotenoid-rich foods. Carcinogenesis 1997;18:1847-50.  Back to cited text no. 3      
4.Agarwal S, Rao AV. Tomato lycopene and its role in human health and chronic diseases. CMAJ 2000;163:739-44.  Back to cited text no. 4      
5.Sol. Silverman Jr. Diagnosis and management of leukoplakia and premalignant lesions. Oral Maxillofac Surg Clin North Am 1998;10:45-55.  Back to cited text no. 5      
6.Singh M, Krishanappa R, Bagewadi A, Keluskar V. Efficacy of oral lycopene in the treatmentof oral leukoplakia. Oral Oncol 2004;40:591-6.  Back to cited text no. 6      
7.Kohlmeier L, Kark JD, Gomez-Gracia E, Martin BC, Steck SE, Kardinaal AF, et al. Lycopene and myocardial infarction risk in the EURAMIC Study. Am J Epidemiol 1997;146:618-26.  Back to cited text no. 7      
8.Langseth L. Oxidants, antioxidants, and disease prevention. ILSI Europe concise monograph series 1995:4.  Back to cited text no. 8      
9.Cody V, Middleton E, Harborne JB. Plant flavonoids in biology and medicine-biochemical, pharmacological, and structure-activity relationships. New York, NY: Alan R. Liss; 1986.  Back to cited text no. 9      
10.Havsteen B. Flavonoids: A class of natural products of high pharmacological potency. Biochem Pharm 1983;32:1141-8.  Back to cited text no. 10      
11.Prasad KN, Kumar A. High doses of multiple antioxidant vitamins: Essential ingredients in improving the efficacy of standard cancer therapy. J Am Coll Nutr 1999;18:13-25.  Back to cited text no. 11      
12.Rao LG, Guns E, Venketrao A. Lycopene: Its role in human health and disease. Agro Food Industry 2003;25:1-6.  Back to cited text no. 12      
13.Kumar A, Bagewadi A, Keluskar V. Efficacy of lycopene in the management of oral submucous fibrosis. Oral Surg Oral Med Oral Path Oral Radiat Endod 2007;103:207-13.  Back to cited text no. 13      
14.Carnelio S, Khan SA. Free radicals and antioxidant therapy in clinical practice: To be or not to be. J Coll Physicians Surg Pak 2007;17:173-4.  Back to cited text no. 14      
15.Meyers DG, Maloley PA, Weeks D. Safety of antioxidant vitamins. Arch Intern Med 1996;156:925-35.  Back to cited text no. 15      
16.Kaugars, Silverman, Lovas. A clinical trial of antioxidant supplements in the treatment of oral leukoplakia. Oral Surg Oral Med Oral Path 1994;78:462-8.  Back to cited text no. 16      
17.Singh, Gaby. Premalignant lesions: Role of antioxidant vitamins and beta carotene in the risk reduction and prevention of malignant transformation. Am J Clin Nutr 1991;53:386S-90S.  Back to cited text no. 17      
18.Enwonwu, Meeks. Bionutrition and oral cancer in humans. Crit Rev Oral Biol Med 1995;6:5-17.  Back to cited text no. 18      


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5], [Figure 6], [Figure 7], [Figure 8]

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