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Superoxide dismutase is a protein that neutralizes free radicals. This protein is referred to as an enzyme, or as a protein that initiates or regulates a specific chemical or signaling action. Superoxide dismutase specifically neutralizes the superoxide radical, which is generated during normal aerobic processes.
There are two different forms of this enzyme. These two enzymes work in different compartments of the cell, and they utilize different positively charged metal ions to neutralize the negatively charged superoxide radical. A form of the superoxide dismutase enzyme that uses either copper or zinc is located in the cell cytoplasm, or in the basic body of the cell, and protects the cytoplasmic structures from free radical damage.
The mitochondria refer to cellular organelles where the majority of oxygen metabolism, or respiration, takes place. Many oxygen radicals are therefore generated in this compartment. The second form of superoxide dismutase is located in the mitochondria, and uses manganese for free radical neutralization.
A disease associated with low levels or gene mutation of this enzyme, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), demonstrates the importance of superoxide dismutase in the body. It is thought that the lack of this functional enzyme leaves the nerve cells vulnerable to free radical attack, eventually leading to the symptoms of ALS. Doctors hope that giving ALS patients high levels of this enzyme, or that supplementing with other antioxidant substances, may help slow the progression of ALS.
Superoxide dismutase may also be potentially helpful in the treatment of other disorders associated with free radical damage. This includes inflammatory diseases in general, and more specifically colitis or other inflammatory bowel disorders. This enzyme may also help with conditions resulting from long-term exposure to toxins like cigarette smoke.
This enzyme can be found naturally in wheat grass, or in vegetables like broccoli and brussels sprouts. In addition, the body can synthesize superoxide dismutase on its own and adequate amounts of this enzyme can be produced if a person eats a relatively healthy diet. For people with conditions that may be helped by extra levels of this enzyme, supplementation may be recommended.
These supplements are somewhat controversial. This is because the enzyme is totally inactivated by stomach acid and therefore tablets need a special coating to survive the stomach acid and to be properly absorbed. Some medical professionals believe that oral supplementation is impossible, whereas others argue that specially coated capsules, or enteric capsules, are fully absorbable. This enzyme may also be injected.
Free radical damage to the skin is considered one of the major factors that causes wrinkles, and superoxide dismutase is included in many anti-aging cosmetic creams. These creams are also thought to heal burns and decrease hyper-pigmentation, or age spots. Due to its antioxidant ability, some people believe it may also help to prevent damage to skin that might eventually become cancerous.