They say free things often come at a great cost. This is absolutely the case for “free” radicals. Free radicals are behind many damaging effects in the body, including cellular aging and death, cancer, cardiovascular ailments, etc. Luckily, the healthy body is able to mop up most of the free radicals circulating it and keep us safe from its damaging consequences. Sometimes, however, the amount of circulating free radicals outmatch the body’s capacity for clearing them. This is where antioxidants come in.
Here, we will be exploring the world of free radicals and their damaging effects and how these tiny superheroes known as antioxidants keep us safe from harm. Keep scrolling!
Free radicals are reactive and unstable molecules naturally produced in the body as an end-product of metabolism. These free radical molecules contain an atom with an incompletely filled outer shell, thus having an unpaid electron in the outer shell. Hence, the atom constantly searches to donate or receive an electron from another atom to achieve stabilization. This process of binding to other molecules causes damage to the cells in the body. The damage can present as rapid aging and the development of certain diseases.
Free radicals may be produced through exposure to carcinogens such as tobacco smoke, ultraviolet light, radon, air pollution, medical radiation, some viruses, environmental and occupational chemicals and substances like vinyl chloride and asbestos. Free radicals don’t stay long in the body but cause a lot of damage during their short stay. For instance, the lifespan of free radicals is only a fraction of a second, but during their stay in the body, they damage DNA, causing other complex abnormalities in the body. In addition, they result in mutations that can lead to different diseases, including heart disease and cancer.
Oxidative stress occurs as a result of an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants present in your body. Due to their unstable outer shell, free radicals easily react with other molecules in the body including DNA, proteins and cellular material. When one free radical stabilizes itself by reaction with a different molecule, it sets off a chain of reactions with many other molecules. In other words, when a free radical obtains an electron from a molecule, there is a missing electron in such molecule, hence causing the molecule to convert into a free radical.
If unchecked, this chain of reactions will continue until extensive damage is done to many cells in the body. The process by which free radicals receive an electron for other molecules is known as oxidation or oxidative reaction. Thus, when many free radicals are present in the body, each setting off a cascade of oxidative reactions, the body is said to be under oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is only possible when the natural antioxidant capacity of the body cannot match the amount of free radicals present within. Oxidative stress damages the body’s DNA, cell membranes, lipids and proteins, resulting in a range of metabolic diseases.
Seeing how harmful free radicals are, it becomes important that you limit their influence. You can achieve this in two ways;
- Reducing your exposure to free radicals
- Scavenging the free radicals present in the body
Reducing your exposure to free radicals entails that you adopt lifestyle measures that limit your contact with several sources of free radicals, primarily tobacco smoke. Other lifestyle measures include limiting the intake of processed foods, limiting your intake of processed sugars and trans fat and eliminating your exposure to carcinogen-rich environments. By adopting these lifestyle measures, you afford your body a balance between oxidative stress and antioxidation, such that it can adequately handle the free radicals produced within.
The second strategy involves using antioxidants to combat the presence of these free radicals.
Antioxidants are small molecules that neutralize free radicals. These molecules can donate an electron to free radicals and remain stable afterward. Thus, they stabilize free radicals before the cell-damaging activities start. Antioxidants may also work by breaking down free radicals into harmless moieties. Antioxidants stop the chain reactions initiated by free radicals. Their presence ensures that cells preserve their integrity and DNA mutations
The body naturally produces antioxidants such as glutathione and ubiquinone. However, the principal antioxidants with large free-radical scavenging properties are vitamins like E and C that must be obtained from the diet. These antioxidants act at different levels, including prevention of free radical formation, scavenging of active free radicals, repair of free radical damage and adaptation to the presence of free radicals.
The most common antioxidants are vitamin E, vitamin A, beta-carotene, anthocyanidins, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). Minerals such as zinc and iron, coenzyme Q10 and flavonoids also have potent antioxidant activity. Many of the foods we eat contain these antioxidants. Some common antioxidant food sources include
1. Spices and herbs
· Green mint contains Vitamin A
· Cinnamon contains large amounts of polyphenol
· Basil contains lutein, beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, etc.
· Oregano contains Vitamin E, Iron, Vitamin K
· Cloves contain Vitamins and Minerals
· Allspice contains Eugenol
· Pomegranate contains flavonoids, ellagitannins, etc.
· Plums contain anthocyanins, polyphenol, etc.
· Dried fruits have a higher level of antioxidants than fresh fruits.
· Blackberries have higher antioxidants like anthocyanins, ellagic acid, resveratrol, etc.
· Blueberries contain vitamin A, vitamin C, flavonoids, etc.
· Goji berries contain zeaxanthin
· Cranberries contain Vitamin C, phenols, etc.
· Raspberries contain quercetin, Vitamin C, ellagic acid, etc.
· Strawberries contain Vitamin C, polyphenols, minerals, etc.
· Kale contains kaempferol, quercertin, etc.
· Artichoke contains polyphenol, flavonols, anthocyanin, etc.
· Orange bell pepper contains carotenoids.
· Sundried tomatoes contain lycopene
· Cauliflower contains indole-3-carbinol
· Beets contain rutin, caffeic acid, etc.
· Red cabbage contains vitamin A, anthocyanin, etc.
5. Beans contain saponin, quercetin, anthocyanin, kaempferol, etc.
· Dark chocolate contains flavonoids.
7. Coffee contains caffeic acid, ferulic acid, etc
8. Nuts and seeds
· Walnuts contain ellagic acid, melatonin, etc.
· Pecans contain Vitamin E
· Pistachios contain flavonoids, selenium, beta-carotene, etc.
· Flaxseed contains lignans
· Sesame seeds contain vitamin E
· Chestnuts contain ellagic acid, gallic acid, Vitamin C, etc.
Nuts and seeds also contain a moderate portion of antioxidants, but they are high in calories.
Antioxidants may also be obtained from supplements. These supplements are tablets or capsules containing concentrates of vitamins, minerals or other molecules with potent antioxidant properties. Some common antioxidant supplements include;
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Coenzymes Q10
Antioxidants provide many benefits to the body. More than just scavenging free radicals, antioxidants provide other benefits to ensure overall health. The following benefits are attributed to antioxidants.
Antioxidants work to fight and protect the body from the dangers of free radicals. They help to protect cells and DNA from mutation and damage caused by free-radical oxidation. They provide free radicals with an electron without becoming a radical. Rather than continuing radical chains, it helps stop the chain reaction of damage.
Oxidative stress is an imbalance caused by free radicals, which can cause damage to the brain and body. Reducing oxidative stress helps to reduce the chances of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, age-related macular degeneration, neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease), autoimmune diseases like systemic lupus, mental stress, and depression, inflammation, and memory loss.
Free radicals harm the brain. Free radicals affect the area of the brain involved in learning and memory, i.e., the hippocampus. It kills the hippocampus cells and reduces the growth of new brain cells. The hippocampus is also connected to mood disorders like depression; hence, a problem in the hippocampus can cause some mental-related issues. Hence, antioxidants help to reduce the risk and treat neuropsychiatric disorders. It helps to reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.
Aging and free radicals are related. Hence, eating food rich in antioxidants helps to reduce the risk of age-related diseases. This is done by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, which in turn reduces DNA damage and delays rapid cell aging.
Free radicals cause damage to the macula of the eye, which is the main cause of vision loss in older people. Antioxidants help reduce the risk of vision loss by 17 percent and also help to protect the eyes from free radicals damage.
Exercise and bodybuilding cause the production and bioaccumulation of free radicals and other reactive oxygen species. However, the body quickly deals with the produced free radicals and adapts to them, becoming more efficient in reading and responding to free radical production signals. Free radical production in exercise is associated with chronic fatigue and slower recovery after routines. Thus, antioxidants that help to scavenge these free radicals and protect the body from their effect are super important for athletes.
In the same way, exercise contributes to the formation of free radicals, it also stimulates the production of enzymes that scavenge free radicals. The antioxidant defense mechanism typically protects athletes from the effects of these free radicals. However, massive exposure to free radical sources and limitation of the body’s antioxidant mechanisms exposes athletes to the damaging effects of free radicals including quick aging, diabetes, cancer, heart-related disease, and neurodegenerative diseases. Hence, athletes and bodybuilders must prioritize healthy lifestyles while the use of vitamins and mineral supplements with antioxidant properties is highly recommended. Besides eating antioxidant-rich foods, bodybuilders should avoid environmental triggers of free radicals like cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, stress, drugs, chemicals, radiation, excessive sunlight, and additives in heavily processed foods such as protein powder.
Free radicals are known to cause damage to the human body when excessive. They cannot be completely eliminated from the body because the body goes through metabolism, and in this process, free radicals are produced. This is why antioxidants are important. Antioxidants help reduce the amount and the effects of free radicals in the body. Thus, athletes, bodybuilders and anyone concerned with staying healthy must combine lifestyle practices to limit free radical exposure, with the use of antioxidants that counter the effects of these cell-damaging molecules.