Free radicals…what exactly are they?

I have discussed in several of my posts the role of free radicals in disease.  I realize that the term “free radicals” is used rather loosely by lay people in discussing health matters so I think it is important to really understand what they are.  Firstly, it is important to note that free radicals are neither good nor bad but they are VITAL.

As I mentioned in previous posts, free radicals are atoms or molecules that have lost an electron from their outer shell.  Well, they never actually “lost” it but rather it was forcefully removed in a chemical reaction.  In fact, most free radicals are produced naturally as our bodies produce energy.  In a beautiful process known as cellular respiration, our bodies (our cells) use oxygen to produce energy in a small little furnace known as a mitochondria.  This production of energy using sugar and oxygen produces carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O).  

In addition to producing energy (ATP), CO2, and H2O, reactive oxygen species (ROS) such as O2- are produced.  Since ROS like O2- have now donated an electron, they have the ability to bind with other atoms or molecules and create a spiral effects of atoms or molecules being stripped of an electron. Image

While this might not sound too bad, if the ROS strips an electron from part of DNA or proteins in the body, it can literally affect genetics and lead to disease.  Fortunately, our body also produces a counter effect to these naturally occurring free radicals.  Chemicals such as glutathione produced by the body can readily combine with ROS and effective neutralize them (reduce them).  

It should be noted that ROS are important because they can signal cells for immune reactions.  We cannot and do not want to “rid the body of free radicals such as ROS”.  What we want to be aware of is that certain lifestyles and environmental variables such as ionizing radiation (see last post) can dramatically increase the levels of free radicals to a point where the antioxidants such as glutathione cannot keep up.  Other things that can increase free radicals are smoking and poor diets.  



So if health is maintained by being aware of wanting to maintain homeostasis between free radicals and antioxidants, what is the role of foods with antioxidants?  

It is well documented that vitamins such as C and E are powerful free radical scavengers.  Foods that are effective free radical scavengers are foods high in vitamin E such as collared greens, almonds, sunflower seeds, kale, spinach, etc.  

Remember that balance is the key to maintaining health.  No need to get all crazy with antioxidants.  Eat a balanced diet and try to avoid too many environments that create in excess, free radicals.



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