What Are Free Radicals and How Do They Affect Us?

| Well Being

free radicals

Ready for a quick high school flashback? Let's take a second to review some chemistry and physiology basics. You've got your typical bunch of cells, which are composed of molecules, which are in turn composed of atoms. The number of protons and electrons (positively and negatively charged particles) must be paired in order to create a normal and balanced cell. Atoms within a molecule are bound together by their electrons, and this bond creates a maximally stabilized molecule. Under typical circumstances, the bonds between atoms all contain paired electrons. However, when a weaker bond splits and leaves a molecule with an unpaired electron, free radicals are created.

Alright, hang with us a little longer! So you've got some random free radicals bobbing around in your system. So what? Free radicals are incredibly unstable and tend to react swiftly with random compounds in an attempt to regain the necessary electron in order to reestablish its stability. Think of it as the girlfriend you've got who just cannot be single. As soon as one boyfriend is gone, she goes wild in her desperate search for a new partner. Normally, free radicals will attempt to latch on to a stable molecule nearest to them and, in a sense, "steal" its electron. You can see how this can result  in a chain reaction, of sorts: once one free radical regains its missing electron, the molecule that has lost its pair then becomes a free radical.

In moderation, free radicals are occasionally considered a normal part of several of the body's systems. Free radicals often arise naturally during metabolism, and sometimes they pop up in the immune system in order to neutralize viruses or bacteria. Certain elements found in our environments can act as triggers, however. Factors such as pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke, herbicides, and other manufactured chemicals can cause a rapid and dangerous increase in free radicals. Overwhelming amounts of these radical molecules leads to a condition called oxidative stress, which is the total burden placed on our cells by the overproduction of free radicals. It can cause extensive damage to the vital components of a cell if it goes unnoticed.

The role of oxidative stress is vast and often difficult to pinpoint, although it is considered to be a key element in many conditions. In particular, oxidative stress impacts anthersclerosis (a cardiovascular disease), any kind of inflammatory conditions (included, but not limited to, arthritis, vasculitis, lupus, and adult respiratory diseases syndrome), certain cancers, heart diseases, neurological disorders, the process of aging, damage to DNA and proteins, and even more. In short, it is essential that an overabundance of free radicals does not go ignored!

anti aging

Enter our body's natural defense system against these devious molecules: antioxidants! Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by giving one of their own electrons to the deformed molecule, restoring the balance. They themselves do not become free radicals because they are capable of remaining stable with or without that electron. Vitamins C and E especially become our knights in shining armor against the destructive nature of free radicals. Vitamin E is the most fruitful antioxidant in our bodies, and serves as the primary defender against oxidation. Vitamin C is particularly relevant because it combats the free radicals formed by pollution and cigarette smoke, both of which we probably encounter every day! You can check out the Top 10 Recommended Vitamins for All Women by clicking here.

Besides boosting your diet with Vitamins C and E, there are several foods that you can include in your diet to battle the effects of free radicals. First and foremost, you need to incorporate fruits and vegetables into your diet on a regular basis. There are also a variety of supplements that you can take as well. Some of the most antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies out there include:

If you want to add even more foods packed with antioxidants to your diet, check out our favorite selections by clicking here.

woman eating yogurt with fruit

If you're concerned that you are at risk for oxidative stress, then we encourage you to incorporate more antioxidants into your diet! You should also reach out to your doctor for more information, and to learn what else you can do to keep your family healthy! If you are interested in learning more about free radicals, feel free to check out our sources: National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Institutes of Health, Little Choices Matter, Health Check Systems, Reader's Digest