What are Free Radicals?
Are Free Radicals Harmful to Cells?
Free radicals can be very harmful to cells, in simple terms, they steal the electrons of healthy cells causing cell damage (oxidation). This can cause a chain reaction of cells missing electrons stealing electrons of other healthy cells, if not counterbalanced by anti-oxidants (namely: vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C). See a technical description: Antioxidants and Free radicals.
Below we explore the dangers of free radicals and how anti-oxidants can help prevent oxidation.
TIP: This is analogous to how rust works. Iron and steel rust when they come into contact with water and oxygen. Or rather, the air and water create a chemical reaction that oxidizes the metal.
- What are Oxidants?: A molecule, atom, or ion missing electrons.
- What is Oxidation?: The loss of electrons or an increase in oxidation state by a molecule, atom, or ion.
- What are Antioxidants?: A molecule, atom, or ion that inhibits (prevents, reduces) oxidation.
- What is Reduction?: The gain of electrons or a decrease in oxidation state by a molecule, atom, or ion.
How Antioxidants Work.
How Oxidation and Reduction Work (Redox)
Free radical molecules are oxidants, they are missing electrons and are “unbalanced”. Oxidation occurs when there are no antioxidant reducers to prevent the free radical from oxidizing a molecule in a healthy cell to balance itself (reduction). Oxidation is a natural process, and sharing electrons is fundamental to how atoms work, but free radicals can cause an unnatural and unhealthy amount of oxidation and reduction in healthy cells. The reduction-oxidation process can be referred to as “redox” (a short way of saying reduction, as reduction always occurs with an oxidation reaction).
TIP: Sharing electrons and creating bonds is the foundation of our atomic structure. Free radicals stealing electrons threatens the balance of our system and changes the structure of our building blocks.
FACT: It’s theorized that free radicals cause aging through cell degeneration. See the studies below for more science on oxidation and anti-oxidation.
The science version of Free Radicals from Khan.
Quick electron explainer: The cells in your body are made of molecules, molecules are made of atoms, atoms have electrons orbiting a nucleus which are balanced by protons. When atoms bond they share electrons. Normally creating and breaking bonds is a smooth process, but when weak bonds split, the atom “panics” and rushes to find the nearest electron. If no reduction can occur in a healthy way, for instance due to the presence of antioxidants, the molecule missing electrons can steal the missing electron from a happy healthy cell’s molecules. This can cause a chain reaction of panicked cells stealing electrons. It’s a little like that old clip played to the Benny Hill song, except it kills you.
Benny Hill Chase Scene.
What Causes Free Radicals?
Fried foods, alcohol, tobacco smoke, pesticides, air pollutants, radiation, and other “cancer causing” or “unhealthy” “agents” can introduce free radicals into a system. However, free radicals can also occur naturally (for instance if the mitochondria, the organelle in your cells responsible for turning food into energy, is damaged).
In very simple terms. A lot of what we think of as “unhealthy” has the added negative side effect of introducing “free radicals” into our system which steal electrons of healthy atoms, molecules, or ions in cells.
This oxidation process takes place if not off-set by antioxidants. Luckily, many of the healthy things we do introduce “antioxidants” into our systems (like eating foods high in the right vitamins and taking vitamin supplements).
Antioxidants – vs – Free Radicals – Immune System.
How Can We Get Antioxidants?
Antioxidants can be found in foods that contain micronutrients (vitamins) like vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene. There are also other systems of antioxidant enzymes aside from the big 3. Foods high in antioxidants include blueberries, cranberries, artichoke, blackberry, strawberries, and other natural fruits and veggies of different colors.
According to the rice.edu, specifics include:
- Vitamin E : d-alpha tocopherol. A fat soluble vitamin present in nuts, seeds, vegetable and fish oils, whole grains (esp. wheat germ), fortified cereals, and apricots. Current recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 15 IU per day for men and 12 IU per day for women.
- Vitamin C : Ascorbic acid is a water soluble vitamin present in citrus fruits and juices, green peppers, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, kale, cantaloupe, kiwi, and strawberries. The RDA is 60 mg per day. Intake above 2000 mg may be associated with adverse side effects in some individuals.
- Beta-carotene is a precursor to vitamin A (retinol) and is present in liver, egg yolk, milk, butter, spinach, carrots, squash, broccoli, yams, tomato, cantaloupe, peaches, and grains. Because beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A by the body there is no set requirement. Instead the RDA is expressed as retinol equivalents (RE), to clarify the relationship. (NOTE: Vitamin A has no antioxidant properties and can be quite toxic when taken in excess.)
FACT: Antioxidants help remove potentially damaging oxidizing agents. This is just one more reason why it’s important to eat healthy and take your vitamins.
Do Supplemental Vitamins Work as Anti-Oxidants?
Supplemental vitamins generally work as vitamin replacements. Think basic overarching rule is, “best to get nutrients from food, but vitamins are a good backup”, from our research this is also true with anti-oxidants.
Does Working Out Cause Oxidation?
Working out causes oxidation, and extreme exercise without the proper diet can be very dangerous because of this.
Working out can actually “oxidize” your cells, fat cells. No one is going to cry if their fat cells get oxidized and sucked away, but other cells can be oxidized as well. To prevent oxidation damage when working out you want to ensure that you are replacing those burned calories and nutrients (micro and macro-nutrients) with healthy foods and liquids high in anti-oxidants to prevent any funny business.
FACT: It has been speculated that “extreme exercise” can cause “oxidative stress” too overwhelming to be handled with just a proper diet.
Can Antioxidants Help Prevent Cancer and Aging?
Despite half a century of study and hundreds of theories, the science is still out on as to if antioxidants can prevent cancer and rate of aging. It is fairly well shown that oxidation is no friend of aging or cancer, but you’ll need to look at the studies yourself for See this study for more information: Effects of antioxidant supplementation on the aging process.