Although they sound like criminally-inclined political extremists out on bail, free radicals are in fact destructive molecules inside the human body. Like guerrilla warriors, these molecules work undercover to attack and kidnap components of body cells, then recruit those cells to continue the dirty work themselves.
They are usually defined by chemists as short-lived, chemically unstable atoms, molecules, or ions with an unpaired electron. Dr. William Pryor (editor of the journal ‘Free Radical Biology in Medicine’) offered in an interview the following simpler definition:
All that a non-chemist … has to understand is that a free radical is an active part of a molecule…a chemical species with an odd number of electrons.
Damaging chain reaction
When applied to the human body, the definition refers to oxygen-based molecules which change when involved in metabolic processes such as respiration. Looking around for a mate to pair their odd electron with, they remove an electron from another molecule. This produces yet another unpaired electron and another free radical, in a continuing chain reaction which can damage cell membranes and interfere with DNA. This DNA meddling is known to speed up the ageing process and even cause some types of cancer. Free radicals have also been linked to heart and lung disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Free radicals and ageing
The connection between free radicals and ageing was first suggested in 1954 by Denham Harman of the University of California, Berkeley. In a published interview Dr. Harman states:
It suddenly occurred to me that free radical reactions…could be responsible for the progressive deterioration of biological systems with time because of their inherent ability to produce random change. I realized that free radicals could account for all the phenomena that I knew about because they were irreversible reactions. At that time there was no datum to indicate they were going on in the human body, but it was quite obvious that they had to go on because it was just the nature of chemistry.
He also remarks that
Free-radical reactions are implicated in 50 disorders. These free radical diseases include cancer, heart attacks, strokes, rheumatoid arthritis, cataracts, and Alzheimer’s disease.
So, if free radicals are so dangerous, why does the body produce them during respiration? It stands to reason that free radicals must have a useful purpose, and they do. They are used by white blood cells to destroy bacteria and viruses, and they are a by-product of the liver’s effort to counter the effect of toxic chemicals. In moderation they do not pose a threat.
The problems start with the over-production of free radicals, and this can be caused by situations as diverse as smoking and air pollution, excessive exposure to strong sunlight and the consumption of foods containing polyunsaturated fats, fats from which vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, has been removed. So what is an antioxidant?
Defend your body against free radicals with antioxidants
An antioxidant, as the name implies, is something which works against the oxidation attack mounted on cells by free radicals. Antioxidants are able to surrender an electron to free radicals. In the process they become free radicals themselves, but harmless ones, devoid of the urge to continue the chain reaction by attacking another cell. Thus the existing free radicals in the body are neutralized.
Sources of antioxidants
The human body can produce small amounts of certain antioxidants, such as Coenzyme Q-10 (“CoQ10”). However, as the body ages, its ability to produce even small quantities of antioxidants declines. Luckily there is another source, in the food human beings eat, especially fruit and vegetables, seeds, nuts, fish oil and green tea. Among the antioxidants contained in these foods are CoQ10 and vitamin C, as well as the antioxidant superstar vitamin E. Beta-carotene (which becomes the antioxidant vitamin A once in the body) is found in carrots and spinach, and in egg yolks and dairy products. Vitamins C, E, and A, and the trace mineral selenium (which combines with proteins to make antioxidants) are also commonly consumed in the form of dietary supplements.
List of weapons for eliminating free radicals
Here is the arsenal you will need for defense against the deadly enemies called free radicals:
- Don’t smoke
- Avoid air pollution
- Limit exposure to strong sunlight
- Take regular aerobic exercise, without over-exercising
- Avoid polyunsaturated fats
- Consume foods rich in antioxidants
- Take antioxidant supplements if necessary
Effective use of these weapons will put those free radicals back in jail where they belong.