Free Radicals Friend or Foe?

Look at rust on iron or tin and you get a fair understanding of the free radical process. When moisture meets iron, it undergoes a chemical process called oxidation, causing the reddish coating that we know as rust.

Oxidation means that something reacted with oxygen. Specifically, it means that oxygen molecules (the air we breathe in) lost an electron during their interactions with other molecules. They become what scientists call free radicals, unstable oxygen molecules that are dangerous as their name implies. In that state to “heal” themselves free radicals steal electron from any healthy molecule they can seize, creating more free radicals in the process.

To see this in action, look at what happens whenever oxygen mixes with other molecules, free radicals form. For example, slice a banana and the oxygen –exposed fruits turn brown from the free radical damage. Inhale, and we too become exposed. As a matter of fact every breath we take generates free radicals, and as they seek to stabilize themselves, damage healthy cells.

The damage that free radicals do is staggering. Research is showing that free radical damage contributes to many major illnesses, including hardening of the arteries, degenerative eye diseases such a macular degeneration, certain cancers and even aging itself.

Living with the Foe

Free radicals are not foreign invaders like viruses or bacteria. Most free radicals are made within your body and they occur naturally. “The body produces them when it generates energy.”

Every Cell in your body transforms the oxygen you breathe into water. However, about 1 percent of the oxygen leaks from the chain. It’s this 1 percent turns into free radicals.

“White blood cells also produce free radicals purposely in order to kill invading bacteria and microorganisms, but these free radicals don’t have very good aim and therefore ending up not just killing the foreign bacteria but also causing damage to healthy tissue.”

Getting In Balance

In keeping with the laws of nature, for every force there is a counter force. Applying this theory, for every free radical that our bodies produce there is an antioxidant to control it.

Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and beta-carotene actually come between free radicals and your body’s healthy molecules. Antioxidants offer their own electrons to stabilize free radicals and stop them from doing further damage.

Certain foods are loaded with antioxidant vitamins that are nature’s preparation to stop free radicals from causing damage. When your body manufactures free radicals, it also manufactures antioxidants to block their effects.

“We have a whole orchestra of defense mechanism to detoxify free radicals.” As free radicals are being made, our bodies are detoxing them, either with antioxidant enzymes or vitamins.”

The environment in which we live creates large numbers of free radicals in addition to the ones made within our bodies. Exposure to pollution, ultraviolet light, radiation, and car exhaust vastly increase free radical production.

Cigarette smoking is another example of significant external source of free radicals.

With all these sources generating excessive free radicals our antioxidants have a hard time keeping up. The research shows it takes “20 milligrams of vitamin C –one third of the Daily Value—to neutralize the effect of just one cigarette.”

The Damage They Do

Once free radicals are rampantly running, the damage they do depends on where they will launch their attacks. Atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries is a good example to show where free radicals contribute to this disease. LDL cholesterol clumps together and sticks to the artery walls.

Another time it may go for our DNA. When they damage those critical strands of genetic information, cells may undergo changes that cause them to replicate uncontrollably that may become cancerous.

Free radicals may cause damage to the eyes. There is a strong link between macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of irreversible vision loss in people over the age 50.

Fighting Free Radicals

A plant-based diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables is the best weapon to provide maximum reserves of antioxidants to ward off free radicals.

Fruits and vegetables contain an abundance of natural antioxidants particularly vitamins C and E and beta-carotene as well as dozens of other free radical fighting compounds.

The research points out that “when you look at long term population studies, people eating vegetarian diets appear to gain protection from diseases that are believed to be related to free radical damage. They live longer, healthier lives.”

Some of the best food sources of antioxidant compounds include vitamin C citrus fruits, broccoli, sweet peppers, dark green leafy vegetables; beta-carotene rich carrots. sweet potatoes, spinach, wheat germ and vegetable oils which are loaded with vitamin E.

Don’t become overwhelmed by this article. Arm yourself with the knowledge and know that free radical may be the root cause and play a role in diseases and that they are only one player among many other factors. The best things we can do are to eat sensible, live healthy and exercise.

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