There are thousands of research papers written on free radicals and antioxidants. However, understanding this topic is to truly comprehend the basis of health since all health is on a cellular level. Our cells are like “biological engines” that gradually wear down to continually “run” and stay alive.
Free radicals are destructive molecules that hurt our cells, tissues, and organs. Every part of the body is vulnerable to their damage. These processes take place in our bodies on a cellular level and last barely a millisecond but can compromise our DNA, the cell’s genetic material.
Natural processes create free radicals in the body, like breathing and digesting a meal. Then there are the free radicals that are caused by lifestyle. Smoking, stress, pollution, too much exercise, microwave ovens, an infection caused by bacteria and viruses, aging, radiation, too much sun, hydrogenated oils, asbestos, and other environmental assaults negatively affect the cells. When we produce more free radicals than the body can deal with to maintain health, antioxidants quench the chemical storms that take place in our bodies every second.
Atoms are the basic units of all matter. A molecule consists of two or more atoms. Every atom has a negative charge called an electron. These electrons whirl in orbits around the atom’s core, and they whirl around in pairs. If an electron is lost, the atom becomes unbalanced, and it needs to get its balance back. So it steals an electron from another molecule, thus stabilizing itself but creating another unstable molecule, another free radical. This leads to a domino effect which results in damage to the cell. Envision a rusting fence or a cut apple browning to get a mental picture of oxidation. Every cook knows if you squeeze lemon juice on the apple, it doesn’t brown quite as fast. This is because lemon juice serves as an antioxidant.
Antioxidants are our saviors, our warriors. They sacrifice their electrons to balance out free radicals. When antioxidants and free radicals come into contact, they react to neutralize one another. Antioxidants and free radicals are opposite in chemical reactivity.
Problems arise when our defense system is overwhelmed. Every second, tens of thousands of free radical reactions occur within the body. The body needs nutrients from the foods we eat that contain these great tiny chemical powerhouses, antioxidants, to keep us healthy. Antioxidants help us surrender electrons to free radicals and not contribute to the chain reaction. By terminating free radical activity, antioxidants save our cells from further destruction. Antioxidants are less reactive molecules.
It is so ironic that in this modern day and age, with all the fabulous improvements we’ve gleaned from science, a fundamental principle of health, the foods we eat are so compromised by processing, depleted soil, and attention to shelf life. This nutrient deprivation that many of us suffer from doesn’t allow us to get the antioxidants we require. Most degenerative disease states come from “undernutrition,” a lack of proper nutrients reaching the cells. When the body is adequately nourished, ample antioxidant enzymes are produced, keeping free radical reactions in control.
Glutathione, superoxide dismutase, and catalase are our major antioxidants. Protective antioxidants are found in abundance in fruits and vegetables. We should all be eating colorful foods every day, and I don’t mean the different shades of M&M’s! The Harvard School of Public Health recommends consuming at least nine servings of colorful fruits and vegetables daily. Unfortunately, most of us do not come close!
Antioxidants address different aspects of health that make them organ-specific. Here are a few examples of some antioxidants and their protective qualities.
Glutathione is manufactured in every cell of the body and is considered the body’s critical natural antioxidant. This is because its importance to our overall health is so essential. It has been studied in clinical applications in heart disease, stroke, AIDS, diabetes, cholesterol, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, digestive diseases (irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcers, and hepatitis), macular degeneration, asthma, chronic bronchitis and more. Also known as GSH, glutathione is fundamental to immune response. Many scientists feel that life depends on it. Without it, our livers would not be able to withstand the environmental onslaughts of daily life in our polluted world. It is a powerful auto exhaust, cigarette smoke, pesticides, and heavy metals detoxifier. So it is easy to see why GSH concentrations are highest in the liver and why we would lack resistance to viruses, bacteria, and cancers without it.
Alpha Lipoic Acid:
Alpha Lipoic Acid is a powerful antioxidant that interacts synergistically with CoEnzyme Q 10 and vitamins C and E. It helps regenerate and conserve other antioxidants as well because antioxidants are depleted while attacking free radicals. It is needed for cellular mitochondrial function for converting glucose into energy. Mitochondria are the little powerhouses in each cell that create energy. Alpha Lipoic Acid is water and fat-soluble and protects lipids (fats) and nerve fiber lining against oxidation. Lipoic Acid is often referred to as the “universal antioxidant.” One laboratory study revealed that Alpha Lipoic Acid could reduce the accumulation of damaging free radicals within the brain. Alpha Lipoic Acid helps protect the ears of older people from free radical damage that would lead to hearing loss by protecting the auditory nerve.
CoEnzyme Q 10:
CoEnzyme Q 10, also known as CoQ10, is one of my favorite antioxidants. It’s 5,000 times stronger than Vitamins C, E, and A. No other substance supercharges your cells and helps prevent and reverse heart problems, high blood pressure, blocked arteries, nerve damage, brain cell deterioration, abnormal cell growth, breathing problems, gum disease, muscle wasting, blood sugar imbalance, skin damage, headaches, obesity, and infertility. Conversely, when CoQ10 levels are low, you’re more prone to accelerated aging, disease, and deterioration. In addition, certain prescription drugs, such as Statins, deplete CoQ10.
Vitamin A helps the lungs, skin, hair, and eyes. It assists in wound healing and works along with Vitamin D to help bones, teeth, and the immune system. Vitamin C is essential for tissue growth, wound healing, absorption of calcium iron, and the utilization of the B vitamin, Folic Acid. In addition, it is involved in creating neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), cholesterol regulation, and the formation of collagen. Vitamin E protects red blood cells and is essential to cellular respiration.
Lycium helps strengthen the immune system and, in Chinese medicine, is believed to promote longevity.
- Lutein helps protect the eye from macular degeneration.
- MSM, also known as methylsulfonylmethane, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. So if your joints are good at predicting the weather, you need MSM.
- Acai (pronounced AH-SIGH-EE) comes from the Acai berry, which grows on palm trees in the Brazilian Amazon rain forest. It has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. It is twice as strong as blueberries in its antioxidant effect and 33 times more potent than red grapes and red wine.
- L-Carnitine plays a role in energy production by facilitating the transport of fatty acids into the mitochondria.
- Quercetin is heart protective. Antioxidants play a significant role in protecting the heart from oxidative damage.
The mere mention of the term cholesterol strikes fear and trepidation in most of us. Yet, physician recommendation of anti-cholesterol drugs is big business in America. Cholesterol is a substance that the body makes. It is so essential that if we don’t supply our bodies with food, our livers produce some for us. Despite its bad reputation, cholesterol is essential to life. It is the raw material from which every hormone in our body is produced. In addition, our brains need and use cholesterol. It is a harmless and essential substance that is constantly traveling down the highway of our bloodstream.
Now here’s a shocker: 75% of those who have heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels. It is not cholesterol that harms us. Instead, it is oxidized cholesterol or cholesterol that has been attacked by free radicals that do the damage. If cholesterol in your blood isn’t altered by free radical oxidation, it moves harmlessly through your arteries. In an attempt to repair the damage done by free radicals on the arterial wall, your immune system kicks into action and patches up the injury with cholesterol. Plaque is oxidized cholesterol and immune cells that come together to act as a band-aid. That is what clogs the arteries. Vitamins C, E, A, the minerals zinc and selenium, and CoQ10 are protective nutrients that help stop free radical damage.
Antioxidants work synergistically. They interact to contribute to the body’s defenses and increase energy levels. Nutritional scientists know how vital these key compounds are in protecting our health.