You may have heard the term “free radical” being used quite a bit these days—do you know what it is? For the most part it has a negative connotation attached to it, but do you really know why? For many these questions are not that easy to answer so let’s take a quick look at what exactly free radicals are and how they affect our body.
What are Free Radicals?
A free radical is an atom, molecule, or ion that has unpaired electrons on its outermost shell. Okay, so you’re probably asking yourself, “What in the world does that mean?” Well, in order to fully understand what a free radical is, we will have to take a quick crash course in Biochemistry. Don’t worry, it’ll be painless.
An atom is a nucleus of protons and neutrons surrounded by shells of orbiting electrons. Atoms that have full outer shells are happy and content. Atoms lacking full outer shells are desperate to fill them either by transferring or sharing electrons with other atoms, forming what is called a bond. When two or more atoms bond together they form molecules. Molecules make up cells which are the basic structural, functional, and biological units of all known living organisms.
For the most part, bonds don’t split in a way that leaves a molecule with an unpaired electron (there are some cases but we’ll cover those a little later). However, when a bond is broken, free radicals are formed. These new, unstable, and highly reactive radicals attack the surrounding compounds in a quest to steal the lost electron and become stable again. When the attacked molecule loses its electron, it becomes a free radical itself, beginning a chain reaction. This chain reaction can wreak havoc on living cells, ultimately injuring the integrity of the cell. Uncontrolled free radical production, known as oxidative stress, causes even greater damage to the cell, sometimes ending in destruction beyond repair.
How does this affect your body?
Free radical formation is a byproduct of many normal cellular reactions in the body, including energy generation, breakdown of lipids and proteins, and inflammatory processes (these are the exceptions as mentioned above). For example, free radical generation of phagocytes by white blood cells is the main mechanism for killing microbes or bacteria/pathogens, which are produced when you sprain an ankle or become sick. In this case free radicals are actually beneficial to the body and help to combat against evil invaders, keeping us healthy.
On the other hand, radicals produced by environmental factors such as pollution, cigarette smoke, radiation from ultraviolet light or X-rays, and processed foods can all be detrimental to our wellbeing. Too many free radicals in the body have been linked to a wide variety of pathologic processes including aging, cancer, heart disease, and some degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease; the list goes on and on. Although the effects of these reactive species are wide-ranging, the most harm comes from direct damage to the cell membrane and intracellular organelles; destruction of proteins, particularly enzymes which can interrupt vital processes throughout the cell; and lastly a direct hit to the motherhouse DNA which has been implicated in the aging and malignant transformation of cells.
Under normal conditions, most cells have chemical mechanisms that protect them from the injurious effects of free radicals. However, if the body’s defenses are low or there is an excessive amount of free radicals, damage can occur.
So how do we defend our bodies against free radicals?
To fight against these harsh radicals is the powerful and all mighty antioxidants! These are substances capable of counteracting the damaging effects by surrendering the much needed electron without adding to the chain reaction. Antioxidants are nutrients such as Vitamin C, E, A, and beta carotene. Also included are enzymes glutathione peroxidase, catalase, and superoxide dismutase. A diet featuring natural antioxidant-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes is the best way to combat these relentless radicals, thereby reducing your risk for disease and maintaining a strong, healthy body.Booker, R.J., Widmaier, E.P., Graham, L.E., & Stiling, P.D. Biology: 2nd Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2011).Kumar et al: Rubbins and Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease: 8th Edition. (Saunders-Elsivier, 2010).rn
Angela Nunez is currently an Integrative Eastern/Western medical student at South Baylo University, studying Traditional Chinese Medicine, Medical Acupuncture, Herbology, and Natural Nutrition. She developed her interests in a natural approach to medicine while experiencing the benefits of natural therapies first hand. Angela began competing as a fitness competitor in the Bikini Division of the National Physique Committee (NPC) this last year and has placed each of her showings. She has been an advocate to healthy living as a both a Personal Trainer and Yoga instructor.