Free Radicals: What are Free Radicals & How They Stress the Body: Part One
Many people have heard that foods with antioxidants protect us from free radical damage, which is responsible for many of the effects of aging on both the body and mind. But what exactly are free radicals, why are they bad and where do they come from?
Free radicals are uncharged molecules, which are typically highly reactive and short-lived, that have an unpaired valence electron. According to the Pharmacology Review, “reactive oxygen species and reactive nitrogen species are generated by our body by various endogenous systems, exposure to different physiochemical conditions or pathological states” (Pharmacology Review).
These free radicals can be toxic to the body but their natural production within the body is not abnormal or always negative. Free radicals contribute to the aging process and are an essential player in our human immune system. The body produces free radicals as byproducts of cellular reactions, metabolism of foods, breathing and other vital, autonomic functions. The liver also uses and produces free radicals for detoxification and white blood cells send free radicals to help destroy bacteria, viruses and damaged cells.
The reason that free radicals can be dangerous is that these molecules are unstable- meaning they are always on the watch for components that other cells have, but that they themselves are missing. Electrons exist in pairs within the cells and free radicals are missing an electron. This is how they become a weapon in the body: they react with just about anything new they connect with, which in turn robs healthy cells and compounds of one of their own electrons.
This process then makes the affected or “robbed” cell or compound unable to function normally and can even turn normal cells into electron-stealing cells just like the free radicals. This process can then start a chain reaction in the body and the free proliferation of more free radicals being created. The immune system is then the clean-up crew, but they lose their control and end up marauding and pillaging throughout the body, destroying perfectly healthy cells and tissues.
What is Oxidative Stress? And how do Antioxidants fit in?
Free radicals ultimately harm and age the body over time because they damage DNA, cellular membranes, and lipids stored within blood vessels and enzymes. Normally, free radicals live in balance with antioxidants in the body. It is when this balance is disturbed, due to low intake of antioxidants and accumulation of free radicals, that accelerated aging occurs.
When antioxidant levels in the body are lower than the levels of free radicals, due to factors like poor nutrition or lots of incoming toxins, the immune system is overloaded, and aging occurs more rapidly. In order to know how to best protect yourself from health problems linked to free radical damage it helps to understand what types of lifestyle habits or dietary choices cause them to accumulate in the first place.
The damage done by free radicals in the body is known as oxidation:
- Oxidation is the same process that browns an apple or rusts metal. Rampaging free radicals react with compounds in the body and oxidize them. The amount of oxidation in the body is a measure of oxidative stress.
- High levels of oxidative stress affect every organ and system in the body and have been linked with everything from Alzheimer’s disease, arteriosclerosis, cancer and heart disease to accelerated aging, asthma, diabetes and leaky gut syndrome. Oxidative stress is believed to lead to the development of the most prevalent chronic diseases and disorders killing adults today, especially heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
- Oxidation lays the foundation for the proliferation of free radicals and damage to cells, muscles, tissue, organs, etc.
These antioxidants counteract the free radicals because they are basically donating their electrons to the free radicals to settle them down, and then are consumed in the process. Our bodies use antioxidants to lessen the impact caused by the free radicals and our diets help to give us the tools to do this. Glutathione is one of the most important “master” antioxidants and is the liver’s main weapon. It is created from amino acids cysteine, glutamic acid and glycine.
Other major antioxidants in the body have been identified as the following, which you may be more familiar with: Vitamins A, C and E; bioflavonoids, beta-carotene, CoQ10, selenium and zinc. Copper and manganese have roles in the destruction of free radicals, too, but to a lesser degree. There are also other phytochemicals from plants that have shown to play a big role in this process. Lycopene, tannins, phenols, lignans, and quercetin help to reduce inflammation and lessen the effects of oxidation in the body.
Here are some of the roles that antioxidants have:
- The antioxidant lipoic acid repairs essential enzymes in the body.
- Melatonin is an important antioxidant linked to regulation of the circadian rhythm which are part of our sleep/awake cycles.
- Even cholesterol can have antioxidant benefits. “Good” HDL cholesterol in some ways acts as a powerful antioxidant by repairing damaged blood vessels and reducing oxidation, meaning the addition of oxygen to low-density lipoproteins. This helps stop the buildup of fatty plaque on artery walls, which can lead to atherosclerosis, and keeps blood flowing to the heart.
The body’s natural ability to produce antioxidants in the body declines with age, according to the Mayo Clinic. The main reason that antioxidants are often touted as anti-aging compounds is because they help to protect from age-related diseases, which are often partially caused by free radicals and inflammation. While we cannot stop the aging process or the production of free radicals, a diet high in antioxidant rish foods can help the aging process happen more gradually, gracefully and lead to longer, healthier and more active lifestyles.
Read more about free radicals in our Free Radical series of articles.