What is a Free Radical?
Updated: Dec 9, 2022
Free radicals and oxidative stress are buzz words that have been trendy in the press. The media touts consuming foods with antioxidants to promote health and longevity, but why is it so important to fight free radicals and what damage do they cause? Free radicals, or reactive oxygen species, are unstable forms of oxygen that have an unpaired electron. Electrons usually exist in pairs, and since free radicals are constantly looking for their missing electron, they move around the body trying to find a way to pair it. Some amount of free radicals in the body are normal, since free radicals are the products of normal cellular metabolism and are created through ordinary body functions. They help defend against infectious agents, regulate biochemical pathways, and signal cellular functions. However, free radicals are also created from environmental exposure, such as pollutants, radiation, antibiotics, and chemicals. Additionally, they are produced from emotional and physical stress, overtraining, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and a poor diet, especially one high in unhealthy fats, sugars, and pesticides. These uncharged molecules can be very harmful to the body because they are unstable while moving around the body, and they may damage cell structures, including DNA, lipids, membranes, enzymes, and proteins, and they derail important biochemical pathways. Antioxidants are molecules that donate an electron to free radicals to neutralize them. By reducing the number of free radicals, they protect against free radical damage. Normally, the amount of free radicals and antioxidants in the body balance each other out. However, when there is an imbalance between free radicals and the body’s antioxidant system, oxidative stress, or rusting, occurs. During oxidative stress, the immune system becomes overloaded, which harms and ages the body due to the damage to the structures in the cells. This can affect every organ and system in the body and is linked to the development of most chronic diseases. It is important to consume a diet rich in antioxidants to combat free radicals. Some foods rich in antioxidants are berries, grapes, cocoa, green and white tea, and fruits and vegetables high in carotenoids, bioflavonoids, lycopene, quercetin, lutein, and resveratrol. Many herbs and spices are high in antioxidants, including turmeric, oregano, cinnamon, and rosemary. In addition to consuming antioxidants, our bodies create antioxidants by using vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals from the diet. The most important antioxidants in our body are glutathione, superoxide dismutase, and catalase. The Western Diet is one of the primary reasons free radicals are increasing. It is devoid of many antioxidants and is too high in calories. Because our diet is mostly “empty calories,” it lacks many nutrients and antioxidants, which are important for our internal antioxidant system. Additionally, the more calories consumed, the more work for the mitochondria, which produces free radicals as a byproduct. In order to eliminate oxidation, we need to change our diet, lifestyle, and environment. First, avoid overeating and try to maintain a healthy weight. Eliminate sugar, processed foods,and refined carbohydrates. Eat organic fruits and vegetables when you can and avoid pesticides. Avoid toxins and air pollution and find methods for reducing stress. Supplements are available, but is better to have a healthy lifestyle and diet to reduce free radicals. By Denise Groothuis RD