In the health world today, there’s a lot of talk about free radicals, the damage they can cause to your body, and the importance of defending against this damage. Everything from medication to food to personal care products is judged based on its ability to “fight” free radicals. But what exactly are free radicals? What do they do that’s so dangerous? And how do you really protect yourself from them?
What is a free radical?
All atoms have layers around the nucleus known as “shells.” These shells are where electrons live. When the outer shell is full, the atoms is stable. When the outer shell is not full, the atom becomes unstable and tries to “steal” another electron from the cells around it.
Free radicals are atoms that have an odd number of electrons. These odd numbered electrons are unpaired, which makes the free radicals highly unstable and reactive. Free radicals can affect your cells by trying to “steal” their electrons, which can damage important parts of your body. This causes a chain reaction, as the cells in your body become unstable free radicals and try to “steal” from the other atoms around them too.
Where do free radicals come from?
Free radicals can form on their own when atoms are exposed to certain levels of light or heat. Sometimes, your body also makes free radicals on purpose in order to attack bacteria or viruses that are making you ill. Others are created by overexposure to environmental factors, such as X-rays, cigarette smoke, air pollution, pesticides, UVB rays, and industrial chemicals.
How do free radicals affect your health?
Some of your body’s most important building blocks are highly susceptible to damage from free radicals, including DNA, RNA, proteins, vitamins, and cell membranes. Exposure to some free radicals is natural, but when your body is exposed to too many through environmental factors, the high levels of damage they cause can begin to negatively affect your body. This can lead to severe health conditions, including premature ageing of the skin, arthritis, heart disease, emphysema, Alzheimer’s disease, hypertension, preeclampsia, and many types of cancer.
How can you fight free radicals?
Your body fights free radicals with compounds known as antioxidants. These atoms are stable enough to donate an electron without becoming unstable themselves, thus neutralizing the free radicals without causing damage to your other cells.
If your body has a healthy balance of free radicals to antioxidants, unstable atoms will not damage your cells more than your body can handle. But if your antioxidants levels are not high enough to fight the free radical damage to which you are exposed, then there are various ways to increase them.
Moderate, regular levels of exercise have been shown to increase antioxidant levels in the body—for example, think 20 minutes of jogging every day, rather than a single session of powerlifting once a week.
You can also increase your antioxidant levels by consuming certain foods that are rich in antioxidants. Vitamins A, C, and E are all antioxidants, and consciously adding them to your diet will help protect your cells from free radical damage. Foods that are particularly high in antioxidants include the following:
• Vitamin A: nuts, seeds, fatty fish, flaxseed, and whole grains.
• Vitamin C: citrus fruit, bell peppers, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, kale, and strawberries.
• Vitamin E: peanuts, almonds, spinach, kiwi, mango, tomato, broccoli, and safflower oil.
Finally, you can balance your antioxidant to free radical levels by minimizing lifestyle factors that increase free radical exposure. This includes not smoking, avoiding high levels of air pollution, staying away from pesticides and chemicals, and wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen when you are outside.