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A Quick Guide to Free Radicals


A Quick Guide to Free Radicals

Free radicals. The name sounds like it could have a positive connotation. Free is always good, right? And who doesn’t remember when radical things were all the rage. Despite the naming convention, free radicals are anything but positive.

Free Radicals Explained

They’re all around attacking and supporting our systems everyday, but you’ll never see them. A free radical is an electrically charged molecule that has an odd number of electrons, which make them unstable. They are generated within cells and latch onto whatever cellular component they are closest to.

We have what’s known as the superoxide dismutase defense system to help cells handle these unstable free radicals, however, as we age the system becomes less effective. This leaves our cells more susceptible, and all it takes is a single free radical to create a chain reaction of damage.

The Damage that Free Radicals Do

Free radicals wreak havoc because they are scavenging for another electron to balance themselves out. When free radicals come in contact with cellular components the result can be cells that don’t function properly or die. This is bad news on a lot of levels. There’s a long list of problems that are thought to be created by free radicals to some degree.

  • Aging of the skin
  • Heart Disease
  • Cancer
  • Dementia
  • Nerve death

Where Free Radicals Come From

Free radicals develop when particular molecules interact with oxygen anytime we breath or our body processes food. They are essentially a byproduct of numerous bodily functions, and therefore are inescapable. Bad habits such as smoking or inadequate sleep can also ramp up free radical production.

Believe it or not there are also exercise-induced free radicals. This is because of the higher level of oxygen utilization. However, the frequency and exertion level greatly factor into how well the body is able to fight off these free radicals.

How to Fight Back Against Free Radicals

Antioxidants are the key to keeping free radicals in check. Unlike cells, it’s believed that these molecules can handle free radicals and even stop their detrimental chain reactions before they do serious damage. There are four antioxidants in particular that work to ward off free radicals:

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • Beta-carotene
  • Selenium

Selenium is beneficial because it helps the regulate enzyme systems that control antioxidants, while the other three actually combat the free radicals. The one caveat – these aren’t produced by the body. You’ll have to get them through diet and products that include antioxidants.

Research is still being conducted, but some studies have shown that increasing free radical fighting antioxidants could help to slow the aging process, reduce the chance of stroke or heart attack and help prevent cancer. The theory is that antioxidants help support our superoxide dismutase system so it works more efficiently as we age.

Studies on exercise-induced free radicals have shown that people who regularly exercise have enhanced antioxidant defense systems. This helps them block the free radicals that are a by-product of physical activity. However, if you only get physical every now and then these defenses haven’t built up. To improve your overall health, including the prevention of free radical damage, aim to get in exercise at least 3-4 times a week.

It’s important to note that overloading your system with antioxidants could potentially have the opposite effect. Just make sure you’re getting the recommended amounts of vitamins and nutrients in your diet and use topical antioxidant creams to keep free radicals in check.

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