What are free radicals and how to counter them with antioxidants?

Chemical Illustration of an atom with a missing electron
Chemical Illustration of an atom with a missing electron, causing it to become a free radical

Many of us have often heard about the negative effects of free radicals on human health. However, very few of us know what free radicals are and how they work against the human body to inflict harm.

In this informational piece, we will discuss how free radicals affect our health and how we can alleviate their harmful effects with the help of antioxidants.

What are free radicals?

Free radical is the name given to any molecule, atom or ion that possesses an unpaired electron. Electrons, when not paired in their atomic orbits are highly unstable and reactive. To achieve stability, free radicals try to pair their unpaired electron through the process of oxidation.

In oxidation, free radicals try to attract or rather steal electrons from other stable atoms and molecules. If they are successful in this attempt, it sets off an oxidative chain reaction which can affect hundreds of millions of molecules and atoms.

Let’s see how free radicals operate in the environment of the human body.

Reactions of free radicals in our body

When free radicals are formed or enter into our body, they try to get electrons from different molecules, be it proteins, fats, cell membranes or genetic molecules; in other words, they try to steal electrons from the atoms of the nutrients that work to keep us healthy. The removal of an electron from any such molecule within the body changes its basic structure and triggers an oxidative chain reaction. This phenomenon caused by free radicals is also known as the oxidative stress.

What is the free radical theory of aging?

According to the free radical theory of aging, organisms age because their biological cells accumulates oxidative damage of free radicals over time. Even though the debate on the authenticity of this theory is still ongoing,  research studies have agreed on the fact that the oxidative stress can lead to much degeneration. For instance arthritis, heart problems, Alzheimer’s disease, hypertension, Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy and many other health complications can be caused by the prevalence of free radicals.

According to the free radical theory of aging, if oxidative destruction caused by free radicals can be capped, then it can provide longevity to any living being.

Have we found the fountain of youth?  Most likely not, but have we found a way to keep us healthy to the point that we may live longer? Absolutely.

Sources of Free Radicals

To counter the effects of free radicals, it is imperative to know the sources of free radicals. Either they are produced within the body or we get exposed to them from external sources. Whatever the case, knowing where they come from, holds the key to getting rid of them.

Internal sources of free radicals

  • The human body needs the energy to survive and grow. This energy comes from breaking down the food that we eat into ATP molecules with the help of oxygen. This chemical reaction also produces free radicals as a byproduct.
  • Apart from metabolic byproduct, free radicals are also produced when the body undergoes severe stress levels or inflammation.

External sources of free radicals

There are lots of harmful environmental resources that can expose the human body to free radicals.

  • Industrial pollution (including chemicals and smoke)
  • Radiation
  • Pesticides
  • Toxic Metals
  • Cigarette Smoke

It is practically impossible to get rid of external free radicals altogether since they are all around us, in the air we breathe and in the food and water we consume. The best practice is to try and minimize their levels in your body.

How to do this? Read on for more information.

Antioxidants: Crusaders against free radicals

As the name suggests, antioxidants are substances that inhibit the process of oxidation. Introducing antioxidants in the body means that you can stop the process of oxidative stress triggered by free radicals.

Antioxidants usually stop free radicals from inflicting damage to biological molecules by donating the electron they are looking for.

Like free radicals, some antioxidants are produced within the body, while others can be consumed through dietary products and supplements. Usually, fruits and vegetables are the best sources of some very effective antioxidants.

There are three main antioxidants that are synthesized in different organs of the body and have different reactions.

  • Glutathione
  • Uric acid
  • Ubiquinol

There are several other antioxidants, which although not as vital as the above three, are also necessary for combating the negative effects of free radicals.

  • Lycopene
  • Vitamin C and E
  • Anthocyanins
  • Selenium
  • Polyphenols
  • Curcuminoids

What Foods Contain the Highest Amounts of Antioxidants?

Generally, you can’t go wrong with any types of fruits and vegetables, but of these, the ones with the highest amounts of antioxidants are:

  • Dark chocolate
  • Pecans
  • Artichokes
  • Elderberries
  • Kidney beans
  • Cranberries
  • Blackberries
  • Cilantro (Chinese parsley)

Making Sense of it All

In general, you can make sure that your body has access to antioxidants by adjusting your dietary habits around fruits and vegetables. Plant-based foods are one of the richest sources of micronutrients and antioxidants, and both of these substances are necessary to rid the body of free radicals.

Bottom Line: Keep free-radicals at bay by consuming foods rich in anti-oxidants daily.

 

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