Phillip Minton M.D.

Understanding Oxidation

In anti-aging on October 29, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Analogies are a good way to explain something that is otherwise difficult to mentally grasp. However, to understand oxidation, we can simply point to a very well-known example of oxidation. It is an example that we have all seen ourselves.

It is fire. Fire is the rapid oxidation of some material. Consider the fire in your home fireplace. It is wood being rapidly oxidized to produce heat, light, ash and smoke as the end products. The oxidation begins when sufficient heat is applied to the wood, usually via kindling, causing combustion. Kindling is usually a pile of any dry combustible material that has a large surface area, such as straw, sticks, twigs or paper. It catches fire easily, because of the large surface area exposed to the air.

We all know what it takes to start a fire in the fireplace, some kindling, a lighted match and air. You strike the match, apply it to the kindling, and make sure there is adequate airflow. Fires will not start easily if air flow is limited, because oxygen in the air is essential since it oxidizes the material being burned. If there is no air at all, such as when we try to use wet kindling, in which the water covering the outside of the kindling material occludes it from contact with air.

As the kindling ignites and flames spread, it heats up, allowing ever larger pieces of wood to be added successfully to the expanding mini-conflagration. The heat of the burning kindling, along with the increased airflow through the fire that occurs as hot air from the fire rises, causes a convective “wind” to fan the flames. The kindling is then able to light the larger pieces of wood, even though the wood has a much smaller surface area as compared to its volume than does the kindling. As the fire expands, and more fuel is added, it releases ever more energy. This energy, in the form of heat and light, is the end product we are seeking.

The home hearth fire is an example of the oxygen in the air we breathe combining with wood, to oxidize the wood into ash, smoke and heat and light.

Oxidation in our bodies can also occur, as food is transformed by a controlled combination with oxygen from the air we breathe. This internal metabolic process results in needed energy production, as well as unwanted harmful by-products, analogous to the smoke and ash from a wood fire.

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