Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What the Heck Are Free Radicals Anyway?

Antioxidants … raw foods … macrobiotics … free radicals … bioflavonoids … phytonutrients …

Confused? It's no surprise. When talking about healthy foods and healthy living, the terminology can make you feel like an outsider.  It’s a vocabulary that you’ll hear in no other context of daily living, but words like these are tossed about by health-conscious well-wishers in conversations or articles, hoping to persuade, but not realizing that they are speaking what amounts to a foreign language to the uninitiated. 

Welcome to the club.  If you are one of those who would like to be eating and living healthier, our new What-the-Heck-Is-This-Anyway series will arm you with the confidence the next time you hear one of these words, beginning with this article on free radicals

Aging hands

What is a free radical?

Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons.  Free radical molecules form when oxygen interacts with them.  Free radicals are everywhere on this planet.  You’ll find them in the air, inside human bodies, in plants and animals, and in objects all around us.

Perhaps this all sounds innocent enough, but these microscopic little stinkers are far from harmless.  Free radical molecules require that second electron.  Without it, they are unstable: reactive.  Thus, free radicals roam their cellular neighborhood, as though anxiously seeking an electron to steal.  And until they succeed, they react with anything around them, causing damage to surrounding stable molecules.  When they successfully make the steal, there goes the neighborhood – the attacked molecule has now lost one of its electrons and itself becomes a free radical.  This launches a chain reaction as the newly formed free radical heads out to steal an electron, and so on. This degeneration of the ‘hood around that first free radical spreads until BAM! the living cell is disrupted: damaged or destroyed.

Free radical molecules damage just about everything.  Consider the apple.  When you slice it open, notice how quickly the exposed apple’s interior turns brown.  This is caused by free radical damage.  In fact, you may have noticed that absolutely everything seems to age, even if at different rates of decay.  This aging is largely the result of free radical damage.  It causes plastics to deteriorate, paint to fade, rocks to crumble, and works of art to deteriorate.

Why should I care about free radicals?

The free radicals that cause inanimate materials to age also cause living things to decay, or “age” – including humans. 

Today, many scientists believe that much of what we call aging or age-related illness results from free radical damage to the cells, DNA, enzyme systems, and our immune system functions.  This includes the damage that leads to heart attacks, stroke, Parkinson's disease, arthritis, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and cancers.  Scientists have discovered evidence that free radicals start and accelerate cell death mechanisms.

Some scientists also believe in the free radical theory of aging; that organisms age because the cells of all organism are continually accumulating free radical damage over time.   The more free radical damage that builds up in your body, the more and faster you age.

Organic strawberries

What can I do to avoid free radicals?

Because free radical molecules are everywhere, and are a natural bi-product of certain bodily functions, you may be wondering then; how is it possible to reduce exposure to free radicals? 

First consider that free radicals – a normal part of life – only becoming a health risk when your body is bombarded beyond its ability to combat the free radicals.  Second, consider the common sources of free radical overload and make healthy life choices to avoid them.  For example:
  • Avoid fried foods.  When you fry foods – especially at high temperatures and especially when using unsaturated fats – cell-damaging free radicals form, which can  lead to many long-term illnesses.  Minimize frying, reduce the heat when frying, avoid frying with unsaturated fats (cottonseed, safflower, soy, or corn oil), and instead use saturated oils, such as coconut oil or olive oil, when frying food.
  • Buy organic.  Using organic produce will help you avoid ingesting toxic pesticides.  Particularly go organic when buying celery, apples, peaches, or strawberries – statistically the most pesticide-laden fruits.
  • Avoid pollution.  Air or water pollution, often sourced from smoke, herbicides, or chemical toxins, can cause free radicals to develop.  If you live in an area where the tap water is not high quality, use purified water.  As well, reduce or stop smoking, so that your home air space is less contaminated. 
  • Avoid radiation overexposure.  Radiation induced tumors result from free radicals that damage the DNA in your cells.  So, avoid overexposure to sun (sunburn is an example of free radical damage to the skin), X-rays, radioactive material, and close exposure to microwave towers.

How can I protect myself from free radicals?

As noted above, free radicals only become a health risk when there too many.  But “too many” is a relative term.  It implies a limit to what your body can handle.  In other words, free radical damage is a danger to you when your body is too weak to counteract their effect.  Indeed your body can normally handle free radicals when your body has enough antioxidants available.  This is why many scientists have concluded that the best way to protect yourself from free radical damage is to increase the amount of antioxidants in your body.

People exercisingWe’ll talk more about antioxidants – another one of those health food buzz words – in an upcoming What-the-Heck-Is-This-Anyway article.  But the short story is that they help you fight free radical damage.  So, eat foods high in antioxidants – foods that packed with naturally occurring vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta-carotene (vitamin A). 

In case you’ve heard the news that a hard cardio workout can produce free radicals, it’s true … but it’s not a good excuse to stop exercising.  Here’s why:  that same cardio workout also causes antioxidant enzyme production, which counteracts the free radicals.   As well, regular training improves fitness, which, in turn, boosts production of antioxidant enzymes.

Stay tuned: You’ll learn more about fighting free radicals when we do our follow-up article, What the Heck Are Antioxidants Anyway?

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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