Medically Reviewed By Elizabeth A. Swick, MS, RDN
Free Radicals and Their Impact on the Body
If you follow health and wellness news or research dietary supplements, you likely have heard the term free radicals. You have also probably encountered the term antioxidants. But what do these words mean, and how do they relate to your health? Read on for answers.
What Are Free Radicals?
Free radicals are unstable atoms attracted to other atoms because they miss electrons from their outer shell. For years, scientists have studied these highly reactive particles and found that they have the potential to damage the human body.
What Are Sources of Free Radicals?
The human body produces some free radicals as by-products of processes like metabolizing food. When people talk about damaging free radicals, they are usually referring to atoms that come from external sources, such as:
- Air pollutants
- Cigarette smoke
- Pesticides and industrial chemicals
- Processed meats
- Ultraviolet energy from the sun
What Is Oxidative Stress?
Because free radicals actively seek out stable atoms, they may try to bind with healthy body cells. In so doing, they cause free radical damage. The technical term for what free radicals do to cells is oxidation. When free radical damage occurs in the body, the result is a state of oxidative stress, when cells struggle to perform their functions due to the cellular damage they sustain.
What Are the Effects of Free Radicals in the Body?
Research has linked free radicals to:
- Age-related decline: The free radical theory of aging holds that free radicals are one of the leading causes of aging. The ones produced by the body gradually cause the body to age, which is why people's appearances and bodily processes change over time. External free radicals can accelerate this process, causing the body to age prematurely. Studies have linked free radicals to the development of fine lines and wrinkles, sagging skin due to aging, age-related vision problems, age-related dementia, and other conditions related to age.
- Cardiovascular disease: When free radicals damage the heart and blood vessels, inflammation develops, making it more difficult for blood to flow through the body. Direct damage to the heart due to free radicals may also play a role in heart disease.
- Cancer: Cancers develop when cells begin to grow at an abnormally fast pace due to mutations. Cellular changes due to oxidative stress may trigger some forms.
- Autoimmune diseases: Free radical damage may contribute to various autoimmune diseases, including diabetes. It is thought that cellular damage to immune system cells may be part of the reason why the immune system malfunctions and attacks healthy tissues.
- Central nervous system disease: Conditions that affect the brain and spinal cord, such as Alzheimer's, may be partially caused by damage to healthy nervous system cells.
What Are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are substances that break down free radicals into harmless components. Because an antioxidant can destroy a free radical before it causes cellular damage, it is your body's main line of defense against oxidative stress and the conditions that it may lead to.
What Are Some Examples of Antioxidants?
Glutathione and vitamin C are two of the most well-known antioxidants. Glutathione is manufactured by the human body and is called the master antioxidant because it is the substance that primarily fights internal free radicals. Vitamin C is one of the essential vitamins that the human body needs but can't produce on its own.
Phytochemicals derived from plants may also function as antioxidants. Research into phytochemicals and antioxidants has revealed that several nutrients found in plants can combat free radical damage. Some examples include quercetin and resveratrol.
What Are Some Foods Rich in Antioxidants?
Some foods that are rich in antioxidants include:
- Berries, including blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, and blueberries
- Grapes, especially those used to produce wine
- Nuts, including pecans, walnuts, and hazelnuts
- Whole grains like oatmeal
- Apples like red delicious and gala
- Russet potatoes
- Leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and red cabbage
- Beans, including kidney and pinto beans
- Spices like cinnamon, oregano, turmeric, cumin, and parsley
What Are Antioxidant Supplements?
Some individuals concerned about free radicals and antioxidants turn to supplements to increase their intake of vitamins, glutathione, and phytonutrients that act as antioxidants. Supplements can make it easier to reap antioxidant benefits for those who struggle to eat a well-balanced diet. Key ingredients in antioxidant supplements vary greatly. Body Kitchen Mega Quercetin combines the phytonutrient quercetin found in wine grapes with l-glutathione to deliver antioxidant benefits.