Free radicals are not new in nature. They have been around for millions of years along with vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids (EFAs), and protective anti-oxidants found naturally in food. A free radical is an atom or molecular fragment with an unpaired electron. It is very unstable, highly reactive particle, because it hates to be alone and like to be paired. Therefore, it will draw an electron from wherever it can, including other molecules pair in the body, causing them to change structure. These molecules then become free radicals creating a chain reaction with millions of molecules being affected in nanoseconds.
Endogenous (from inside the body) Sources of Free radicals:
Free radicals are intermediates of the normal chemical reactions taking place in the body, including oxidative reactions to produce the energy that our cells require for detoxification, nutritional assimilation, and more. Our body’s immune system also produces free radicals which it uses to kill bacteria, viruses and fungi. If the immune system becomes chronically over-activated by chronic inflammation such as allergies and major operations, there is an extra burden of free radicals in the body.
While those oxidative reactions and immune responses are vital and absolutely necessary, unpaired electrons involved in oxidation can damage molecules in cells and tissues. And this becomes free radical stress, also known as oxidative stress in the body which leads abnormal, toxic, and biologically unsuitable substances to cause degenerative health conditions such as cancer.
Also, it is so important to mention about emotional stress. Emotional stress significantly increases the release of hormones (epinephrine/norepinephrine/cortisone) which in excess act like free radicals creates bio-chemical changes and damages the cells and tissues.
Exogenous (from outside the body) Sources of Free radicals:
- Preservatives and other chemicals in food
- Pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic hormones in non-organic food
- Alcohol and smoking
- Prescription drugs
- Radiation and microwave
- Toxic metals like mercury, aluminum, and lead
- Trans and hydrogenated fats
Luckily, our body is so incredible that it uses antioxidants like Vitamin C, E, A, selenium, CoQ10, as well as enzymes that contain minerals like zinc, manganese, and copper to neutralize free radical toxicity.
How Free radicals become “Bad” guys?
As I mentioned above, free radicals are produced from our body’s biological reactions besides exogenous sources and they can’t cause cell destruction when protective antioxidants are present in the body.
But in this fast-paced modern society, nutritional deficiencies are on the rise, especially vitamins and minerals (antioxidants!).
We eat packaged foods that are highly processed (often with chemicals), heated with high temperature in vegetable oils, and exposed to the light and oxygen. Those are perfect candidates for free radical damages in the body. There is no doubt that free radicals cause degenerative health conditions but the root cause for this is the nutritional deficiencies. By addressing the deficiencies, we could tame the free radical stress.
When I was working in a health food store, people asked me if it was really beneficial to take Omega-3. They were informed by Mr. “google” or some doctors didn’t know much about the benefit of Omega-3 that they cause the free radical damages rather doing the good.
YES. Omega-3s (and Omega-6s) are very sensitive to light, heat and oxygen (I have written about fats here.). Special care needs to be taken in processing, packaging, and storing rich in EFAs in order to avoid free radicals damages. However, to set such conditions costs labour and time. As a result, the necessary care is not usually taken.
Some haters (or just got a job writing about health and wellness) focus on this fact that scares readers without proving the solution to it. I think it is so important to intake Omega-3 either from food or nutritional supplements if you are dealing with asthma, eczema and other health conditions chronically. If you are scared of free radicals from processing the EFAs, eat more whole foods that can protect the cells with antioxidants.
It is so twisted if you are eating highly processed packaged foods and scared of free radical damages from bottled EFAs that could protect your cells. But only if your body has vitamins and minerals that assimilate the fat and act as antioxidants. Again, those have to come from whole foods or nutritional supplements.
Nature does its best to protect our body. Our job is to listen and take action.