You would be hard pressed to find anyone today who does not know about “free radicals,” and the role they play in maintaining the body’s normal cellular processes. Much has been written and covered in the news about these unstable atoms and molecules produced by our bodies, from the breakdown of food to smaller units for and through the metabolism of other products such as oxygen in respiration.
Generally, a stable molecule will contain “one or more atom(s) of one or more element(s) joined by chemical bonds…The most important structural feature of an atom for determining its chemical behavior is the number of electrons in its outer shell.”
Free radicals form when a split occurs leaving a molecule with an odd, unpaired electron. This can lead to a domino effect when free radicals attack stable molecules in an effort to capture the needed electron, therefore turning once stable molecules into free radicals themselves. Our body’s immune system generates some free radicals to fight off bacteria and viruses.
Just as the body is able to produce free radicals, its natural defense system is often able to stabilize these rogues and prevent the potential damage they can cause, by producing potent antioxidants including Superoxide dismutase and Glutathione peroxidase. Antioxidants provide the needed electron(s), without themselves becoming unstable, breaking the cycle of free radical reproduction.
But when the balance between free radicals and antioxidants is affected, it alters the body’s ability to regulate them. Excess production of free radicals can be triggered by external factors such as “…exposure to ionizing radiation and other environmental toxins such as cigarette smoke, air pollutants, and industrial chemicals.” This can lead to a condition known as oxidative stress, which can cause significant damage to DNA. Cell death, known as apoptosis, can affect protein and fats, all of which have been implicated “in many conditions, including atherosclerosis, inflammatory condition, certain cancers, and the process of aging.”
When the body’s own ability to regulate or control free radicals is impaired, it necessitates the use of external sources of antioxidants or exogenous antioxidants, also known as dietary antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, E , Beta-carotene, flavonoids, and selenium (found in nuts and broccoli), just to list a few. Because fruits, vegetables, “and grains are rich sources of dietary antioxidants,” a diet that includes these foods is highly recommended to neutralize harmful molecules in the body. Additionally, taking daily supplements can also be beneficial.
We live in an environment where we are under constant bombardment from toxins, which are in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. This constant exposure means that we have to be even more vigilant about what we put into our bodies and how we protect it. Adopting a healthy diet and making appropriate lifestyle changes can help to prevent chronic diseases and improve our quality of life as we age.
Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention
January 16, 2014
National Cancer Institute
Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods:
Impact on human health
V. Lobo, A. Patil, A. Phatak, and N. Chandra
Pharmacogn Rev. 2010 Jul-Dec; 4(8): 118-126.
Effects of antioxidant supplementation on the aging process
National Institutes of Health
Domenico Fusco,1 Giuseppe Colloca,
1 Maria Rita Lo Monaco,1 and Matteo Cesari1,2
lin Interv Aging. 2007 Sep; 2(3): 377-387.
Published online 2007 Sep.
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