What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are extremely important to the health and well-being of all forms of life. Life itself, in a fundamental sense, is simply the continuous progression of chemical reactions which lead to the survival and proliferation of the organism. However, these reactions can produce harmful byproducts that cause oxidation or radicalization, the same mechanisms that bleach and many other cleaning agents utilize to dissolve dirt…not very conducive to life.
In the average adult human, there are roughly 37,000,000,000,000 (trillion) cells. Inside each cell is a complete copy of all of our genes, and many enzymes and organelles which process the genes and act on them. Each enzyme can catalyze 1000-5000 reactions, per second. There are thousands of enzymes in each cell. The most conservative estimates tell us that each individual cell may host well over 1 billion chemical reactions every single second. Multiply that by the number of cells in the body, and you get 37,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (thousand billion billion, 21 zeroes) reactions per second in your body. That number is incomprehensible, but it’s how we think and move and breathe and ultimately stay alive; those reactions are what it is to be alive.
As we learned in elementary school, all reactions produce some sort of waste, in the form of either energy or chemical byproducts. Most reactions involving compounds containing oxygen produce dangerous reactive oxygen species as a waste product, and many of these compounds are exhaled or trapped by our kidneys or intestines and excreted as waste; they’re called free radicals. Without antioxidants, we would be subject to high toxicity because often the free radical will interact with and harm an important cellular unit before it can be excreted. When there is a high level of free radicals present in your system, the condition is known as oxidative stress. It is involved in everything from cancer to autism, and its effect on DNA and cellular organelles is studied more and more each year.
What are free radicals, and how can oxygen be dangerous?
Oxygen is 100% necessary for life. This is because it is very reactive which allows our body to maintain the chemical reactions that keep us alive. However, the nature of the oxygen atom sheds some light on why it can be dangerous in certain situations.
Oxygen is the 8th element on the periodic table. This means it has 8 protons and 8 electrons. The number of protons and electrons are always equal, so hydrogen, #1 on the periodic table, has one proton and one electron; helium is #2, and it has two protons and two electrons, etc. Electrons are the small negatively-charged particles that orbit around the nucleus of an atom; the nucleus is comprised of protons, which are positive, and sometimes neutrons, which as their name implies are neutral and have no charge.
The reactivity of an element is determined by how readily it will give up, reclaim, or share the electrons in its outermost orbit, or shell. The first electron shell can only hold 2 electrons, but each subsequent shell is only stable when it holds 8. This means hydrogen, which only has 1 electron in its outer shell, needs one more electron to become stable. When an atom’s outer shell is full, it is considered stable: it will not react with another atom or molecule in order to obtain an electron. Keeping this in mind…
Oxygen has 8 protons and 8 electrons, so its first shell is filled with 2 electrons, but the outer shell has only 6 out of 8 potential electrons. For this reason, oxygen rapidly reacts with other elements or compounds in order to obtain electrons to complete its outer shell. Water, H2O, is comprised of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. Because oxygen needs two more electrons to fill its outer shell, and hydrogen only needs one more to fill its outer shell, 2 hydrogens and 1 oxygen are very happy together because they complete each other’s outer electron shells.
This is why (1) water is so stable, and (2) why the space shuttle works: liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen are held in two separate tanks, and when they are exposed to each other, an enormous amount of energy is released as they violently combine, to form…water.
Because of the immense reactivity of oxygen, many of its different forms and compounds such as hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) are highly reactive, and they are collectively refered to as reactive oxygen species, or ROS. Reactive oxygen species bind with necessary compounds in our body, including DNA and cell membranes. They steal an oxygen and completely change the chemical makeup in the process, so it no longer serves its biological function. This is very disruptive and dangerous, and it’s actually a mechanism our bodies use to kill cells that are dangerous or mutated. One form of apoptosis causes the production of a plethora of reactive oxygens which dissolve the cell that produced them. Antioxidants prevent this by giving up an oxygen without becoming unstable; they bind with free radicals, bringing them back to neutral.
CBD as an antioxidant
CBD (and most other phytocannabinoids) is a potent antioxidant. Vitamins C & E are the primary antioxidants in our diet, and CBD is significantly more potent than either of these in terms of its effect in mitigating the cellular quantities of free radicals.
In the cannabidiol molecule, along with other phytocannabinoids, one of the carbon (benzene) rings is something called a phenol. It is a ring of 6 carbon atoms, and each carbon has a hydrogen bound to it; at least one of them is bound to an oxygen as well (in this case, 2 oxygens pictured in red). This is the basic structure of a benzene ring, which is present in a vast majority of organic compounds. However, phenol is different because of the presence of oxygen.
This oxygen is what gives CBD its antioxidant properties. In the presence of a free radical, the oxygen quickly gets stolen, resulting in a neutralization of the CBD molecule and of the free radical which no longer is capable of damaging important cellular mechanisms. This is the specific chemical change that gives CBD its neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties.