What are free radicals? Why are we told to fear them, and why, after several decades (for proof, watch the James Bond movie, “Never Say Never Again”) do they keep coming up as something to be not just avoided but eliminated entirely from our bodies and diets?
This fear of free radicals is not just mere hype, or a marketing ploy (although it has been used as one). As I’m about to explain, free radicals pose a legitimate threat to your immediate, medium-term, and long-term health and longevity.
Why Are Free Radicals Bad?
A free radical is an atom in your body that is in a specific non-typical state. Of course, it’s first necessary to understand what the typical state of an atom is, and then we can understand the threat posed by an atom in the non-typical state of being a free radical.
First, think of an area of your body – say, the muscles in your thigh. Those muscles are made of cells. Cells are made of various types of molecules, and molecules are comprised of at least one atom. Atoms, in turn, contain at least one element (such as oxygen, carbon, etcetera). Chemical bonds join these elements together to form the atoms and molecules. Each atom consists of a nucleus, neutrons, protons, and electrons.
Still with me? Okay, good.
The electrons surround the nucleus in two “shells”: an outer shell, typically consisting of eight electrons, and an inner shell, consisting of two electrons. The chemical reactions these electrons produce create the bonds between atoms that hold the molecules together so that they remain stable.
Generally, the atom will move electrons between its inner and outer shells as needed, or share electrons with other atoms, in order to maintain stability. When this happens, both atoms (the ones that are sharing electrons) are considered stable. But, when an atom’s outer shell is reduced to one electron, it essentially becomes so “desperate” to replace its electrons that it will actually steal electrons from other atoms.
This is a free radical: an atom whose weak chemical bonds result in an electron-deprived state that compels it to steal electrons from other atoms and destabilize them. This results in a sort of domino effect. The harmful destabilization of cells proceeds from one atom to another, destabilizing atoms and the molecules to which they are attached.
The most common type of free radical is the oxygen atom. Hence, the free radical damage is generally referred to as oxidation or oxidative damage: the process of an oxygen atom stealing electrons from neighbouring atoms. To reiterate, this is the effect of the atom attempting to stabilize itself, and it results in the destabilization of other atoms.
This is the danger that free radicals pose: disrupting the stability of healthy tissues. Remember, we are talking about your thigh muscles, the atoms that comprise the proteins, DNA, cell membranes, and other components of that tissue and various other tissues throughout the human body. Oxidation of the cell’s atoms can lead to their malfunction and eventual cell-death, promoting disease, nerve damage, inflammation, and poor health. And free radical damage accumulates as we age.
Production of Free Radicals
Some free radicals are created naturally in the body and serve healthful functions. So when we talk about “fighting free radicals” for health purposes, we are not talking about eliminating them entirely. Rather, we are talking about limiting their creation as a result of our own behaviors: the foods we eat, the activities in which we partake, and the environments we absorb.
Here is a list of environmental factors that have been shown to cause the production of free radicals:
- Daily stress – emotional and physical
- Ozone depletion
- Air pollutants
- Smoking cigarettes
- Radiation (which includes UV rays from the sun)
- Industrial chemicals
- Processed foods
- Drugs – recreational and prescription
As you can see, many of these environmental factors involve the inhalation/ingestion of toxins and impurities. In general, when we are not getting enough oxygen from our environment – which is inevitable amid increased environmental pollution and chest-breathing high-stress lifestyles – our body compensates in ways that have been shown to produce free radicals, by breaking down the chemical bonds of cells containing oxygen in order to “raid” them for their oxygen molecules.
A little bit of this is fine and healthy. But a lot is definitely bad news.
Bottom line: inadequate oxygen causes free radicals to form. The answer, however, is not to schlep an oxygen tank around everywhere you go (Doing that would probably be stressful. Stress causes free radicals! OH NO!). Of course, if you can limit your exposure to such things as industrial chemicals, processed foods, and air pollution, go for it. But the first response is to increase one’s intake of antioxidants.
What Is An Antioxidant?
Antioxidants are scientifically defined as “a substance that reduces damage due to oxygen, such as that caused by free radicals” (MedicineNet). More specifically, an antioxidant is comprised of atoms with excess electrons that it can “donate” to stabilize the free radical and stop the domino effect in its tracks.
This is why antioxidants are associated with slowing the aging process: because they slow or prevent cell damage, such as that which occurs with aging (i.e. a lifetime of exposure to items on the above list). And they all occur predominantly in plants.
Certain vitamins, specifically A, C, and E, and folic acid are considered the “antioxidant vitamins.” These vitamins are not produced naturally by the body and so must be consumed through diet or supplementation.
Antioxidant enzymes, on the other hand, are produced naturally by the body, but rely on specific minerals, which act as cofactors, for their production. These minerals include selenium, iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium.
The last group of antioxidants is comprised of the antioxidant phytochemicals. The prefix “phyto-” means “relating to plants,” and indeed, the four subgroups of phytochemicals can only be found in plants. These subgroups include the Carotenoids, Flavonoids, Allyl Sulfides, and Polyphenols, one or two of which maybe you’ve heard about as other hot-button things that you need. Well, now you know why.
Dark red fruits, like blueberries, raspberries, pomegranates, goji berries, and blackberries, dark green veggies like spinach, kale, broccoli, watercress, and swiss chard, root veggies like carrots, sweet potatoes, and beets, beans such as kidney beans, small red beans, and pinto beans, and nuts such as almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and pistachios, are all rich in at least one antioxidant group, not to mention in possession of numerous other health benefits.
Take Home Message
If you want to reduce inflammation, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and be sure that your tissues are functioning efficiently, strongly, and robustly, make antioxidants a reason for eating!