Most of us have heard about free radicals and the damaging effect that they can have on our bodies. However, what is often not documented is that they are also intermediates in many necessary and completely normal chemical reactions within the body...
The free radicals that can be so detrimental to health are the ones that escape during the oxidation process that provides essential energy and fuel to our bodies. Providing we get enough antioxidants in our diets, free radicals can be kept under control thereby limiting their damaging effects.
Free radicals are naturally formed by biochemical processes and some of them, such as those produced by the immune system, can help us to fight viruses and bacteria in order to keep us healthy. We need free radicals to help us produce vital energy and substances, as well as for their involvement in the production of hormones and the activation of essential enzymes.
Free radicals - what's the problem?
The problem with free radicals comes when the body creates too many of them; when free radicals are formed in large quantities, it stimulates the formation of even more, leading to cell and tissue damage.
When free radicals are present in excessive amounts, they can create problems with genetic coding, protein structure and synthesis, and the destruction of protective cell membranes. It can also cause fluid retention in cells which promotes the ageing process. Additionally, free radicals in excess can create an imbalance in calcium levels. Perhaps the worst thing of all is that too many free radicals can lead to cancer and other degenerative conditions such as cardiovascular disease.
Free radicals are formed due to both diet and exposure to external influences. External factors include radiation exposure (either through medical procedures or being out in the sun), exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke and other environmental pollutants.
Free radicals in a healthy diet
The diet can promote the formation of free radicals due to the oxidation process, which draws energy from the nutrients that we eat in order to fuel the body. During this process, the body releases oxygen molecules which contain unpaired electrons. This released electron seeks out other electrons to pair with - however, this is often achieved by taking an electron from another electron pair, creating damage to the existing pair which it has infiltrated.
When free radicals are produced in large numbers, the more of a negative effect they can have on the body. A high fat diet can create a particular susceptibility to free radicals, because the oxidation process occurs much more readily in fat molecules than it does in other types of molecule, such as carbohydrates and proteins.
Our bodies produce free radicals every second of our existence, so it's important to ensure we have a healthy diet so that we can ingest the nutrients that we need to neutralise them. These nutrients, known as antioxidants, stop the free radicals from damaging healthy cells by binding to their free electrons. Antioxidants that are essential to our health for this reason include vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and minerals such as selenium, sulphur, manganese and zinc. Additionally, bioflavanoids and coenzyme Q10 are also great antioxidants that can help to control these damaging free radicals and keep them to an acceptable level in the body.