What are 'free radicals'

What are free radicals

What are free radicals?

Definition: 'A free radical is a molecule or atom that lacks electrons and tries to steal them from other molecules, thereby damaging them.'

Free radicals are formed by exposure to such things as tobacco smoke, alcohol, insecticides, radiation, chemicals in the home or at work (chlorine, new carpeting, air fresheners, etc.), even excessive amounts of sunlight. Other causes are a high-fat diet, eating fried foods, or strenuous exercise. It is the free radical production from these sources that we need to be most concerned about, as they cause the excessive and uncontrolled free radicals that can have devastating health effects.

Why are free radicals bad?

It is now recognized that free radicals are the contributing causes to more than 60 diseases, such as heart disease, cataracts and rheumatoid arthritis. We can help the body to ‘scavenge’ or ‘deactivate’ free radicals before they cause harm by avoiding some of these environmental toxins and increasing antioxidant intake. Because antioxidant compounds are effective at very low concentrations, we can gain protection from even moderate dietary changes that increase antioxidant nutrients.

How do I combat free radicals?

The body, using raw materials from the diet, manufactures antioxidant enzymes naturally, and when adequate diet is impossible, supplementation may be necessary. Vitamin A is considered an ‘essential’ vitamin, which means it must be obtained from the diet because the body cannot manufacture it. Vitamin A and beta-carotene are most abundantly found in colourful fruits and vegetables such as carrots, apricots, dark green leafy vegetables, red peppers, sweet potatoes, and blue-green algae.

Because the human body cannot manufacture vitamin C, it must be obtained through the diet or in the form of supplements — unfortunately, most of the vitamin C consumed in the diet is lost in the urine. Alcohol can reduce the levels of vitamin C in the body, and its presence may change the effectiveness of drugs taken; for example, sulfa drugs and diabetes medications may not be as effective when taken with vitamin C.

Vitamin C works synergistically with vitamin E, that is, when they work together, they have a greater effect than when they work separately. These vitamins reinforce and extend each other’s antioxidant activity. Vitamin E scavenges for dangerous free radicals in cell membranes, while vitamin C attacks free radicals in biologic fluids.

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin instrumental in preventing oxidative damage, and there is a link between low levels of vitamin E and immune deficiency. Natural vitamin E (D-alpha-tocopherol) is considered more bioavailable than the synthetic form  (DL-alpha-tocopherol), and this vitamin is found in nuts, whole grains, vegetable oils, and to a lesser extent in fruits and vegetables. Although trace minerals are not true antioxidants, minerals have an important role in the effective functioning of antioxidant enzymes. For example, as with selenium and vitamin E; selenium improves the absorption of vitamin E, and vitamin E enhances the beneficial effects of selenium.

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