Free Radicals and Oxidation, What Are They and How Do They Affect Your Health in Lay-mans Terms!
To start, free radicals are the leading cause of oxidation (1). So I will be mostly talking about free radicals, but what they cause IS oxidation. This means that oxidation is the effect of free radicals.
What are Free Radicals?
I have always been interested in health and trying to be healthy. It’s amazing how different some people age, isn’t it?
Take, for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger, can you believe he is 72 years old in 2019? (He looks much younger!) Then you have other people who are barely 60 and look like they are 20 years older than he is (I won’t name names!)
Yes, some of this is likely due to genetics, but the more substantial reason is their diets. I’ll bet Arnold eats much healthier than the average person. But he is also likely getting the secret ingredient…
That secret ingredient is…
Yes, the same things that my mom use to tell me to eat when I was a kid!
Free radicals are unstable atoms that fly through the air super fast. They are invisible (to the naked eye) and are legitimately everywhere. (I’m trying to keep this super simple even though it’s very complicated)
Unstable atoms are looking to have a balance of electrons, and they fly around looking to bond with other atoms to complete this. In the process, they hit us. At first, our bodies can help block these unstable atoms, but over time our body loses this ability.
You cannot dodge these things or avoid them in any way.
But you can protect yourself by eating foods high in antioxidants; antioxidants help to block free radicals. Antioxidants help increase our protection from free radicals, and it becomes more important later.
When free radicals damage our body, they do so in a term call oxidative stress or oxidation for short.
This is because oxygen is a primary source of free radicals! A more “scientific” word for free radicals is Reactive oxygen species (ROS). But I will continue to use the term free radical for the remainder of this post.
Free radicals as said above are unstable atoms but can and will react with and damage complex cellular molecules like proteins, fats, and Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)
How do Free Radicals Hurt Your Body?
As these things fly around, they go into your body. They then bond with other atoms or molecules they find. They can damage almost anything in our bodies.
This can cause a mutation that can vary in severity from nothing, to causing cancer. Even if nothing happens (this time), it is hazardous.
Your DNA is the code to make you, you. You can use your DNA to make copies of you. DNA has trillions of “lines of code,” if you even change the position of a period somewhere in there, then it becomes an entirely different outcome.
Some of these changes don’t do anything. Sometimes changes don’t happen, but sometimes they cause problems. Scientists currently link free radicals to many of the common health problems we see today, though they are not the only cause of many of these.
But over a long period of time, with a lot of free radical bombardment (oxidation), it’s not hard to see how damaging they can be to your overall health. But the more oxidative stress your body experiences, the less equipped it is to defend its self the next time.
We can see this because the effects of oxidative stress are what we call “aging.” Young adults have tight and vibrant skin, but as you age, it becomes duller, and we start to get wrinkles. This is oxidative stress in action!
Here is the kicker! There is no way to avoid oxidative stress because it is produced by our bodies and other animals who breathe oxygen.
Oxygen is metabolized in our body; we release free radicals. Breathing pure oxygen has inconclusively been thought to increase aging. This would be due to more oxygen leading to a higher amount of free radicals around causing more oxidative stress.
Causes of Free Radicals
There are many causes of free radicals, some we can mitigate, and some we can’t.
A leading cause of free radicals comes from metabolizing oxygen which, we obviously cannot mitigate because we need oxygen to live. Every cell in our body uses it, and just a few minutes without it can cause severe issues such as cell death.
However, some lifestyle choices drastically increase the number of free radicals. Such as:
- Smoking – Smoking is super bad for us in a ridiculous amount of ways, but smoking also creates a lot of free radicals. This is likely a cause as to why smokers (tobacco) look significantly older than many of them are, in actuality.
- Air Pollution – Not a lot we can do about this other than move to cleaner air or spend as little time outside in large cities as possible. Of course, hopefully, the air will continue to get better as alternate fuels from cars and other things are developed and improved upon.
- Alcohol – Alcohol promotes the generation of free radicals and/or interferes with the body’s standard defense mechanisms against these compounds through numerous processes, particularly in the liver. For example, alcohol breakdown in the liver results in the formation of molecules whose further metabolism in the cell leads to the production of free radicals.(2)
- Exercise – Believe it or not, exercising increases the production of free radicals due to the higher respiration. However, it also tends to boost the defense against them. The real problem is people who exercise very irregularly, say just on Saturday or Sunday, or even less frequently. This is because you don’t get the benefit of protection as you would if you exercise more regularly. Still, you get the increase (and usually much more increased) respiration.
There are many more ways free radicals are produced, such as eating fried foods, but I won’t list them all since they are too numerable.
The best defense against free radicals is to eliminate sources which are easy to control but to focus on adding a layer of protection against free radicals.
Prevention of Free Radicals and Oxidation
Our body has many ways to defend us against free radicals naturally, but we can also help it out since it lowers as time goes on.
You likely have heard of antioxidants, I had, and was always told to eat them because they are good for you. Such as when my mom told me to eat blueberries because they have a high antioxidant count.
This is true, antioxidants are great for you, and this is because they prevent the oxidation of other molecules. Antioxidants help to lessen the effects of free radicals significantly.
There are a ton of different antioxidants; many help to protect you against certain types of free radicals and/or in different parts of the bodies.
A single antioxidant will not protect your whole body. There are thousands of compounds that can have antioxidant properties such as:
Fruits and Veggies:
- citrus fruits
- dark leafy greens
Examples of antioxidants from other sources:
- fish and nuts
- vitamin E
- vitamin C
- green tea
For this reason, it is essential to have a diet high with a variety of antioxidants.
As an example, you don’t just want to eat oranges for your antioxidants. It would be much better to eat oranges, spinach, and nuts to get more types of antioxidants.
Do Antioxidants Really Block Free Radicals?
Antioxidant effects are up for debate. Many new studies done have lessened the effect of antioxidants. Such as from Harvard.(3)
A study done in 2010 to look at the link between prostate cancer prevention and antioxidants. (4)
Also in 2012 concluded that antioxidants don’t help lower the risk of lung cancer. (5)
All of this being said the effects are still inconclusive and likely their effectiveness had been overblown in the 90s and 200s. However, I believe it is best to take in a large variety of natural antioxidants from food whenever possible because free radicals are a real danger, and antioxidants really do work. This is evidenced by the fact that our body produces some antioxidant chemicals naturally. (6)