While the potential dangers of free radicals are well known, you may be surprised at the most common free radical sources and the best ways to combat them. FREE RADICALS and ANTIOXIDANTS: the precarious balance
NOT ALL ANTIOXIDANTS ARE THE SAME. The answer to free radical imbalance? Antoxidants! In the 21st century, people need far more antioxidants than their ancestors to offset the free radical assault. But not all antioxidants are the same. “For example, the role of vitamin C is to stop the chain reaction before it starts,” Dr. Blumberg says. “It captures the free radical and neutralises it. Vitamin E is a chain-breaking antioxidant. Wherever it is sitting in a membrane, it breaks the chain reaction.” And while different antioxidants work in different ways and
FREE RADICAL SOURCES More than ever, our bodies are subjected to a barrage of free radicals. Some of the sources are external, while others are internal. Here are some of the biggest contributors to free radical imbalance. Exogenous free radicals (fromoutside the body): • Smoking • Alcohol • Preservatives and chemicals in foods • Overeating • Herbicides and pesticides • Prescription drugs • Pollution • Radiation and sunburn • Trans-fats and hydrogenated fats • Heavymetals such asmercury, aluminum and lead Endogenous free radicals (from inside the body): • Chronic inflammation
“The oxidative burden is much, much higher than it was 200 years ago. It’s a fact of modern life.”
different parts of the body, they are all important. “Just like a country needs a military system, the human body needs defense workers at all levels – lieutenants, corporals, generals, staff sergeants – in the form of antioxidants.” And while antioxidant vitamins are critical to fighting free radical damage, the heavy artillery in the war against free radicals comes from our own body – antioxidant enzymes. Unlike antioxidant vitamins, which can ony stop a single free radical chain reaction before they are “used up,” antioxidant enzymes in the body are chemically self- renewing, allowing them to fight antioxidants indefinitely. Consider the following analogy: if the free radical activity in your body is like a heavy blizzard, antioxidant vitamins you consume through your diet are like people with snow shovels clearing the walks in a neighborhood. Antioxidant enzymes are like an army of large, powerful snowplows that can remove huge swaths of snow. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MIX. When it comes to antioxidants, the body needs a broad- spectrum for maximum protection. It needs a mix of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene, as well as flavonoids and polyphenols to neutralise the free radical attacks and allow the body to create its own defense systems. “We can’t rely on a few blockbuster foods to do the job,” says Blumberg. “Each type [of antioxidant] works in different tissues of the body, in different parts of cells. Some are good at quenching some free radicals; some are better at quenching others. When you have appropriate amounts of different antioxidants, you’re doing what you can to protect yourself.” Polyphenolic compounds, like those found in certain grape seeds and skins, act as catalysts that trigger increased production of the body’s own antioxidant enzymes, providing a critical defense against free radicals.
Slice an apple, and it will soon start to turn brown. Leave meat out too long and it becomes rancid. Cut your skin, and it becomes raw and inflamed. All of these instances are examples of a natural process called oxidation. In other words, they are the result of free radical activity.
FREE RADICAL IMBALANCE But the free radical problem extends beyond a single damaged cell. As Dr. Blumberg explains, “One free radical can set off a whole chain reaction. When a free radical oxidises a fatty acid, it changes that fatty acid into a free radical, which then damages another fatty acid. It’s a very rapid chain reaction.”
• Lack of sleep • Physical stress • Emotional stress
These chain reactions can overwhelm the body’s natural defense mechanisms, and over time, those little radicals can add up to big problems.
ANTIOXIDANTS: A NATURAL SOLUTION While all living cells – including those
in your body – are subject to free radicals, you are not defenseless.
Antioxidants are the natural enemy of free radicals, and thousands of different antioxidants are created in your body as well as consumed with the food and supplements you eat. The real problem comes when there is an imbalance: when more – trillions more – free radicals are generated than the body can neutralise.
WHERE ARE THE FREE RADICALS COMING FROM?
Free radicals are the natural byproduct of being alive. You can think of them like the exhaust that is produced by your car. Your body is very efficient at neutralising these free radicals. It’s when we add substantially more to
your system that they really become a problem. So where do they come from? Unfortunately, the answer is almost everywhere . While smoking is the single biggest way to pump free radicals into your system, the very environment we live is a big contributor. As Dr. Blumberg states, free radical- producing toxins are “ubiquitous in the environment.” He continues, “The oxidative burden [on the body] is much, much higher than it was 200 years ago. It’s a fact of modern life, so we have to take that into consideration.”
THE EFFECTS OF OXIDATION Free radicals can have any number of effects on the cells they strike. Sometimes, like when you cut your skin, the oxidation process kills the cells and they are replaced over time by fresh, new cells. As a result, your cut heals. But there is a downside. The cells don’t always die as a result of free radicals. Sometimes, they are just damaged. As Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston, explained to WebMD, “If free radicals simply killed a cell, it wouldn’t be so bad… the body could just regenerate another one,” he says. “The problem is, free radicals often injure the cell, damaging the DNA.
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