What are free radicals?
Free radicals are unstable atoms in the body which cause oxidative stress; causing damage to healthy cells, and ultimately contributing to ageing and disease.
How are they formed?
Oxygen in the body splits into single atoms with unpaired electrons. Electrons like to be in pairs, so these atoms scavenge the body to seek out other electrons so they can become a pair. This causes damage to cells, proteins and DNA. (1)
Where do they come from?
Free radicals are the natural by-products of normal essential metabolic processes in the human body, such as metabolism, and are unavoidable.
They are also caused by external sources such as exposure to pollution, cigarette smoke, industrial chemicals, radiation from X-rays, ozone and even exercise.
Free radicals aren’t all bad – It is possible that free radicals are an early sign of cells already fighting disease, or that free radical formation is inevitable with age.
But it seems that the damage happens to our bodies when we can’t keep them under control.
What do they do to our bodies?
As the body ages, it loses its ability to fight the effects of free radicals. The result is more free radicals, more oxidative stress, and more damage to cells, which leads to degenerative processes, as well as “normal” ageing. (2)
The human body is in constant battle to keep from ageing. Research suggests that free radical damage to cells leads to the pathological changes associated with ageing. (3)
An increasing number of diseases, as well as the ageing process itself, demonstrate a link either directly or indirectly to these reactive and potentially destructive molecules. (4)
Can we prevent premature ageing by controlling free radicals?
Research studies have found that the “reduction of free radicals or decreasing their rate of production may delay ageing”. The studies suggest that antioxidants found in food and supplements are the key to reducing the amount of free radicals; “nutritional antioxidants will retard the ageing process. Research suggests that free radicals have a significant influence on ageing, that free radical damage can be controlled with adequate antioxidant defence, and that optimal intake of antioxidant nutrients may contribute to enhanced quality of life.”(5)
What are antioxidants?
An antioxidant is a molecule stable enough to donate an electron to a rampaging free radical and neutralize it, thus reducing its capacity to damage. (5)
What makes antioxidants unique is that they can donate an electron without becoming reactive free radicals themselves.
Vitamins A, C and E and glutathione are examples of antioxidants. It’s important to note that no single antioxidant can combat the effects of every free radical. Just as free radicals have different effects in different areas of the body, every antioxidant behaves differently due to its chemical properties. Therefore it’s important to regularly intake these antioxidants in our diets and via supplements.
What foods are antioxidants found in?
Vitamin C is found in green leafy veg like broccoli, spinach and kale. It is also found in high quantities in red peppers and citrus fruits.
Vitamin E is found in almonds, sunflower seeds and vegetable oils.
Vitamin A is found in liver, sweet potatoes and spinach.