Free radicals – what exactly are they?

March 2, 2018 7:20 am Published by 1 Comment

To a non-foodie, a ‘free radical’ is a bit of a bewildering term. Is it, perhaps, someone with a Jeremy Corbyn t-shirt, a shoulder-length beard and a Glastonbury ticket?

We're only interested in the free radicals inside us!

Are these free radicals?

Could it be, as Wikipedia states, ‘an atomic or molecular species with unpaired electrons on an otherwise open shell configuration’?

Or is it simply the name of a song by American rock band The Flaming Lips?

What exactly are free radicals?

Well, free radicals are actually all of the above! But in this blog, we’re going to look at them purely as they relate to our bodies.

Put very simply, free radicals are unstable oxygen compounds in our bodies. They damage our cells, causing various diseases and contributing to the aging process.

As unstable molecules, free radicals seek other atoms or molecules with which to bond. This begins a process called ‘oxidative stress’ (or ‘oxidation’). Over time, as our bodies age and become less able to fight free radicals, they break down our cells and lead to degeneration.

Picture of interconnected cells

Free radicals damage and break down our cells

Free radicals have been linked to a host of conditions:

  • Alzheimer’s and other dementias
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Cancers
  • Inflammatory and auto-immune diseases
  • Cataracts and other degenerative signs of aging
  • Diabetes
  • Degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s

Free radicals occur naturally in the body, but lifestyle factors can accelerate their production and their impact. The usual culprits are to blame: smoking, drinking and eating unhealthy food, as well as being exposed to toxic chemicals.

What can we do about them?

We can’t cleanse our bodies of free radicals  – any more than a political party can – but we can try to counteract them and limit their production. Indeed, you’ve probably already heard the ‘solution’ to free radicals, in adverts or on food packaging.

It’s antioxidants.

Antioxidants are molecules that work against oxidative stress, by ‘donating’ an electron to free radicals. There are many thousands of them out there, and certain foods are known to be richer in antioxidants than others.

Keep an eye on our upcoming blogs to find out more! This week, we’re having a good look at antioxidants. We’ll be working out what they are and how we can increase our intake of them – with the aim, of course, of staying as healthy as we can, for as long as we can.

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This post was written by Yzanne

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