Biologists tell us that life on earth billions of years ago consisted of anaerobic (lacking oxygen) microorganisms. Some mutation caused a group of these microorganisms to develop chlorophyll which allowed these tiny organisms to gather energy from the sun in photosynthesis. The by-product, or waste product, of photosynthesis is oxygen, which is a potent free radical inducer. Eventually, nearby life forms developed not only antioxidants to protect themselves from pro oxidants, but eventually developed a need for oxygen, which eventually led to humans. Oxygen is both essential and the source of our ultimate demise. We can slow down, but not stop, oxidation. The essence of living a healthy and long life is to control this oxidation that is occurring in us all the time.
Free radicals, oxidation, oxidative stress, and antioxidants have gained prominence in the health platform in recent times. You have probably been convinced to start taking some antioxidant supplements or jumped onto the detox bandwagon. But do you understand the meaning and the workings behind these terms? And, what are the hazards of free radicals or oxidation?
What Are Free Radicals?
The term free radicals refers to small parts of chemicals (atoms or molecules) resulting from breakdown of various complex chemicals during the body’s biochemical reactions. They are called free radicals because they have unpaired electrons, which make them unstable and highly reactive in order to achieve stability.
What Causes Free Radicals?
Free radicals are byproducts of processes such as metabolism and immune system activity. However, more free radicals are formed as a result of excessive intake of fried food, alcohol, drugs and medications, including antibiotics, excess sugar intake, unhealthy fats and food additives. They can also result from exposure to chemicals in tobacco smoke, environmental pollutants, pesticides, radiation, excessive weight, excessive exercise, physical and emotional stress.
Linus Pauling, PhD earned his first Nobel prize in chemistry outlining how atoms join together to make molecules. In school chemistry, we learned that atoms have a nucleus at the center and electrons orbiting the nucleus, similar to the way planets orbit the sun. Each orbit or shell contains a number of electrons and the stability of an atom is determined by the number of electrons in its outermost shell.
Free Radicals and Antioxidants
Now, when the outer shell or orbit of an atom has an odd number of electrons, the atom seeks to donate or gain one or more electrons to stabilize it. This is the basis of most reactions and is also why atoms combine to form molecules of an element or a compound. Free radicals are electron thieves. Antioxidants are electron donors, essentially sacrificing themselves to protect nearby tissue from disruption.
How Does Oxidation Occur?
Because free radicals are so reactive, they will combine with anything that has capacity to combine with them, including parts of cell structure like DNA, membranes, and proteins. These reactions cause the combining counterparts to lose some of their electrons, or gain some electrons thereby becoming oxidized and less functional. This is the reason why free radicals are closely associated with oxidation and oxidative stress.
The reduced functionality leads to damage or death of cells which further leads to more hazards if the oxidation continues. Recent studies have found that over exposure to free radicals increases the risk of many unhealthy conditions and diseases.
How is Oxidation Harmful?
We can liken oxidation by free radicals to the oxidation that occurs to things like iron when exposed to moisture and oxygen, or the oxidation (signified by darkening) that occurs on the cut surface of an apple or an avocado when left exposed to air (oxygen). When this exposure happens in the body, it comes from free radicals which, as we have seen above, are floating freely within the body systems and tissues, ready to mingle and enjoin with other chemicals, enzymes, hormones, cell, and tissue parts in the body.
It is worth to note that oxidation occurs in your body all the time. This normal level of oxidation does not have much impact as long as it is not too much for the body to cope with. However, when exposure to free radicals becomes a common occurrence in the body, it causes oxidative stress and leads to the many hazards associated with oxidation.
Chronic Disease Caused by Free Radicals
1. Tumors and cancers
DNA damage which can lead to growth of rogue cells which may develop into tumors and cancers.
2. Premature aging
Free radicals and oxidation expose the body to toxins which increase the breakdown of collagen thereby causing premature aging signified by wrinkles, sagging skin and reduced mental capacity.
3. Reduced mental capacity
The free radicals and the resultant oxidation cause damage to cells, including the neurons in the brain and the nervous system. This adversely affects the abilities of the nervous system including the brain and may lead to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
4. Cardiovascular diseases including heart disease
Because free radicals and the ensuing oxidation cause cell damage and cell death, the resultant debris floats within the body, lodging in areas such as blood vessels and thereby reducing their efficiency to transport blood. This leads to increased blood pressure and other circulatory problems.
5. Inflammatory diseases
When free radicals cause oxidation in the body, the resultant materials can be toxic. When such toxins collect within tissues and places such as joins, they cause irritation and inflammation which lead to conditions such as arthritis. C reactive protein, or CRP, is a leading indicator in human blood for inflammation and a very useful blood test done by your doctor.
6. Vision problems
Free radicals and oxidation within the eyes lead to growth of cataracts as well as the degeneration of the eyes optical nerve (macular degeneration). These can cause progressive degeneration of vision.
7. Degenerative diseases
When free radicals and excess oxidation affects muscles and the nerves serving them, they set up the body for the development of diseases such as arteriosclerosis, Huntington and Parkinson’s.
Free radicals and oxidation is believed to play a part in diabetes because the presence of free radicals and excess oxidation interfere with the function of the pancreas including production of insulin.
9. Autoimmune diseases
Free radicals are also associated with other conditions such as asthma, leaky gut disease, and both premature and normal body aging in general.
How to Reduce Free Radicals in The Body
While it is impossible to stay free from free radicals and the associated oxidation, there are two main ways to reduce your free radical load.
- Avoiding or reducing intake of free radical-rich foods and chemicals. This means, quitting smoking, reducing intake of fried foods and alcohol, avoiding exposure to harmful chemicals including pesticides and heavy metals.
- Consuming foods and supplements that have antioxidant properties.
Regular consumption of antioxidant-rich foods can reduce free radicals and oxidation in your body. The antioxidants seek out and combine with the free radicals, thereby stabilizing them so that they are no longer harmful to the body.
In nature, animals seek shelter from the sun after a useful bit of exposure. Plants cannot seek shelter from the sun, and hence generate a battery of protective molecules from the sun’s damaging rays. These colorful pigments work with chlorophyll to gather energy from the sun while protecting the plant from the damage of excessive sun. These colorful pigments are found in colorful fresh fruits and vegetables. There are at least 300 studies showing that diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables can lower the risk for most degenerative diseases and slow the aging process.
Antioxidant foods and nutrients include colored fruits and vegetables like carrots, grapefruit, berries and leafy green vegetables among others. The free radical and oxidation fighting components from these and other foods as well as supplements include vitamins C, E, and A, beta carotene, zinc, selenium, manganese, copper, coenzyme 10 (CoQ10), glutathione, and phytochemicals like lignans, lycopene, phenols, and tannins.
We cannot stop the aging process, but we can slow it down by managing the free radicals and inflammation in our body with a healthy diet and supplements.