If you have ever heard of free radicals, then you probably know that they aren’t good things and we should protect ourselves from them. But very few people understand the ins and outs of exactly what they are and how they can harm us. Read on for a straightforward introduction to these damaging substances.
Simply put, free radicals are abnormal oxygen molecules. They are abnormal because they have only one electron compared to the standard two. An electron is the bonding element that binds atoms together to create molecules. In simple terms, molecules are only considered to be complete and stable when its electrons are paired up. And most of the time, they are. However, sometimes bonds become weak and split in an abnormal way, thus creating an unstable molecule called a free radical.
Free radicals desperately try to become stable by attempting to attach themselves to other molecules in order to find the much needed electron. Free radicals are very quick, as they are motivated by nothing other than maximising their stability by finding a second electron (even if this means stealing an electron from another molecule). They will always attack the first molecule they come across. If this molecule is unprotected, it will lose one of its electrons and become a free radical itself. This process can continue in a chain reaction, or domino effect. This can become a serious problem if the first molecule a free radical comes across happens to be an important one such as DNA molecules.
Free radicals are a normal part of life and they are present in the environment. Free radicals enter our bodies on a daily basis, from cigarette smoke, pollution, germs, certain foods and drinks etc. The human body is normally able to deal with moderate levels of free radicals. However, if free radical damage becomes severe, we can become susceptible to many kinds of diseases.
The Role of Antioxidants The fight against free radicals is not a lost cause. Antioxidants are molecules that protect our bodies from free radical damage by putting a stop to the chain reaction of electron stealing that free radicals cause. They do this by giving up one of their own electrons to the free radical, effectively rendering it neutralised, stabilised and harmless. After interaction with an antioxidant, a free radical will no longer try to steal electrons from the healthy cells in our body because the antioxidant has willingly given it what it was looking for.
So now that we have established the role of antioxidants in protecting us against the negative effects of free radicals, the next logical question to answer is “where can we find antioxidants?” Well, the simplest and most effective way to incorporate antioxidants into your system is by eating foods that are rich in these special nutrients and contain almost no free radicals at all. Typically these include fruit and vegetables, as well as nuts and seeds. Brightly colored foods such as tomatoes and greens are considered to be the most concentrated examples of antioxidants. Antioxidants include a whole variety of vitamins and minerals and it is important to vary the colors of foods you eat to get a well-rounded supply.
So we’ve discovered that free radicals are actually molecules that have only one electron, compared to the usual two electrons. To compensate for this, free radicals search for a health cell in which they can steal an electron. In modest doses, our bodies can keep free radicals under control, especially if our diet is rich in antioxidants which willingly give up one of their electrons to the scavenging free radical. The bottom line seems to be that the more healthy foods we eat, the greater our antioxidant intake will be, which in turn will determine how effectively our bodies fight against the damaging effects of free radicals.