Free radicals can pose a major threat to our health because they have the potential to damage our body at the cellular level. But what exactly is a free radical?
A free radical is an atom or molecule which contains an unpaired electron. Since electrons have a very strong tendency to exist in a paired state, free radicals try to steal electrons from other atoms and molecules. The danger they pose comes when they react with important cellular components in our body.
Free radicals usually steal from the nearest stable molecule, taking its electron. When the attacked molecule loses its electron, it becomes a free radical itself (because now it is missing an electron), which starts a chain reaction. One free radical starts a cascade of new free radicals in our body, finally resulting in the disruption of the living cell.
Free radicals are generated naturally in the body as a normal part of biochemical processes like breathing and digesting. Sometimes the body's immune system creates free radicals in order to neutralize viruses and bacteria. While free radicals are not all bad, too many of them can lead to a number of problems.
An excess of free radicals can be caused by smoking, sunbathing, fried food, infections, excessive exercise, stress, smog and other environmental pollutants, harmful chemicals, toxins, radiation, etc.
Excess free radicals are a problem because their damage can cause premature aging, heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, arthritis, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome and a host of other conditions. The type of disease that occurs is dependent upon which of the free radical defenses in the body were not functioning properly and where the free radical attacks occur.
To protect us against the harmful impact of free radicals, our bodies utilize antioxidants. Antioxidants are molecules which can safely interact with free radicals and terminate the chain reaction before any damage is done. Antioxidants donate an electron to the free radical and convert it to a harmless molecule.
Fresh fruits, vegetables and grains are all good sources of natural antioxidants, but you can choose to take a supplement as well. Fruits and veggies that are rich in antioxidants are sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, papaya, turnip, spinach, strawberries, kiwi, cranberries, plums, broccoli, red and green peppers, tomatoes, etc. Different antioxidants work in different areas of the body, so the key is to eat as wide a range of antioxidants as possible.
There are many different types of antioxidants such as enzymes, co-enzymes, vitamins and sulfur containing compounds. The most important antioxidant supplements are vitamin E, Vitamin C, Beta-carotene and Selenium. All are required for optimum health and illness prevention, however, our bodies can not manufacture them so they must be supplied through proper nutrition and supplementation.
Antioxidant compounds must be constantly replenished since they are used up in the process of neutralizing free radicals.