Are free radicals the cause of aging and disease, or do they have a purpose?

Free radicals are reactive molecules that can cause DNA damage. Accumulated free radical damage is theorized to be a major factor in serious diseases and aging. Not all free radicals are bad; however, some even have a purpose.

Antioxidants can fight the harmful free radicals by neutralizing their unpaired electron.

Learn more about how to avoid free radicals and the best sources of antioxidants.

Free radicals are reactive molecules that can cause DNA damage. Accumulated DNA damage is theorized to be a major factor in serious diseases and aging. Not all free radicals are bad, some even have a purpose. Click to Tweet

Strawberries, blueberries, kiwis, and raspberries, headline "What are free radicals and how can we fight them?"

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What Are Free Radicals?

Free radicals are (1) highly reactive and unstable molecules produced when oxygen loses an electron. Free radicals become oxidants when they donate an electron or reductants when they take an electron from other molecules.

In the 1950s, chemist Denham Harman proposed that aging was caused by free radicals. The Free Radical Theory of Aging hypothesizes that aging is caused by accumulated oxidative damage generated by reactive oxygen species (ROS).

ROS is the name used to describe (2) a number of reactive molecules and free radicals broken down from molecular oxygen. ROS are a normal byproduct of exercise, cellular metabolism, and the oxygenation of hemoglobin to methemoglobin.

Additionally, you are exposed to free radicals from a variety of sources including cigarette smoke, air pollution, radiation, sunlight, and other toxins.

Oxidative stress, cellular damage caused by free radicals, may be a factor in a variety of diseases and aging.

(ROS) Free Radicals and Aging

ROS can damage (3) biologically vital molecules such as DNA, proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates.

ROS and oxidative damage tend to increase (4) with age. At the same time, oxidative stress can speed up the aging process.

Reducing oxidative stress has shown to increase the lifespan of various organisms such as yeast, nematodes, fruit flies, and mice. Conversely, increased ROS production was found to shorten lifespan in the same organisms.

Genetics may be a factor as well as age. But age and genetics are out of our control. Instead, you should focus on what you can control. How can we catch a break from ROS and aging? Antioxidants.

 

“We were on a break! ” ∼Ross, the classic line from Friends

Antioxidant rich blackberries

What Are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are stable molecules that may prevent or delay cellular damage caused by free radicals. Because free radicals damage cells through their unpaired electron, antioxidants can (3) neutralize free radicals by matching unpaired electrons.

The human body produces many of its own antioxidants, such as glutathione, ubiquinol, and uric acid. What the body can’t produce can be found in the diet. The principle antioxidants are vitamin E, Vitamin C, and B-carotene.

Fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices are the best natural sources of antioxidants. Eating plenty of antioxidant-rich foods is associated with good health and lower risk of disease. This may be due to the antioxidants or the other vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, hormones, adaptogens, and enzymes found in plants. Or there may be all these factors, including the factors we are yet to discover, are working in synergy.

What happens when you try to isolate one powerful substance? What about antioxidant supplements?

Do Antioxidant Supplements Work?

Man-made antioxidant supplements have proved (3) to be ineffective in treating or preventing disease.

Combined scientific studies of over 100,000 people have found that antioxidant supplements did not significantly reduce (3) the risk of chronic diseases including cancer and heart disease.

Excessive amounts of these antioxidant supplements may even be harmful. For example, high doses of vitamin E may increase the risk of cancer and one form of stroke.

Antioxidant supplements may have negative reactions with some medications. Tell your doctor about any supplements you are taking and give them a full picture of your health so you can receive the best care. At best, antioxidant supplements are useless, at worst, they are dangerous.

Fortunately, there is no safety concern for the natural antioxidants found in plants.

 

How Many Antioxidants Do We Need?

Women who consume about 1,800 calories a day need (5) at least 8,000 micromoles of antioxidants a day. Men who eat about 2,500 calories need at least 11,000. This is the minimum needed just to counteract the free radicals formed from burning calories.

Unfortunately, the average American fails to even get half their minimum amount. This number doesn’t even take into account the other oxidative stressors we face on a daily basis. As a result, the average person has an antioxidant debt.

 

What Happens When You Are Low In Antioxidants?

You burn carbohydrates for energy, but the process of oxidating carbons creates free radicals.

A study found that drinking sugar water causes (6) a spike in oxidation that can last for hours. Alternatively, drinking orange juice with the same amount of sugar did not significantly raise oxidation levels. Why?

The sugar in fruit comes with antioxidants. For example, hesperetin and naringenin, found in oranges, are the primary phytonutrients responsible for neutralizing oxidation.

All natural plant foods come with the necessary antioxidants and phytonutrients to counter the free radicals generated by digesting them. Natural foods in their wholefood form have everything in balance, sugar comes with the necessary antioxidants.

If you don’t eat antioxidant-rich foods with every meal, your bodies shift (7) into a prooxidative state. Whereby your body is forced (8) to dip into your antioxidant reserves. This can protect you in the short-term. But In the long-term, you deplete your reserves.

Thereby an unfavorable balance of antioxidants and free radicals leads to oxidative stress. When this happens, free radicals can attack your DNA and other vital molecules at will.

Oxidative stress may be (9) a risk factor  in most chronic diseases including:

  • cancer
  • cardiovascular disease
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • diabetes
  • mellitus
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • macular degeneration
  • inflammation and premature aging

Inflammation and Aging

Inflamm-aging is (10) the chronic low-grade inflammation usually associated with aging. When the body is injured, it initiates inflammation and blood clotting. Additionally, the body releases (11) hormones like prostaglandins to start the healing process.

Prostaglandins are hormones produced at the site and time of an injury. Unlike most hormones, they are produced exactly when and where they are needed.

As part of the healing process, prostaglandins initiate the reactions that cause pain, fever, and inflammation. Prostaglandins are (10) an effective natural response to stress, but excess production can lead to chronic pain and inflammation.

Most age-related diseases and many cancers stem from chronic inflammation. Smoking, eating a diet high in saturated fat, and obesity can contribute to excessive prostaglandin production.

Prostaglandin is made from arachidonic acid, a major ingredient in animal fats. Thereby consuming animal fats can contribute to excess inflammation. Conversely, antioxidant-rich foods reduce inflammation.

Antioxidants and UV Protection

Ultraviolet radiation is one way you can accumulate oxidative damage from your environment.

Plants produce (12) “their own built-in protection against the oxidative damage of the sun,” and this built-in protection can be passed to humans. Eating plants can raise (13) the antioxidant potential of your bloodstream. Then antioxidants are delivered to your tissues to protect your cells against UV damage from the sun.

Researchers tested 20 women and burned their skin with a UV lamp before and after half of the group consumed three tablespoons of tomato paste a day for three months. The group that ate the tomato paste had significantly less DNA damage in their burned skin.

Further, eating antioxidant-rich foods may reduce (14) the redness from a sunburn 40%.

 

tomatoes a natural inside out protector against UV radiation

Alcohol and Free Radicals

Alcohol consumption can decrease skin protection from the sun.

The human body breaks alcohol down into products that generate massive quantities of free radicals. These free radicals can neutralize the antioxidants needed to protect you from the sun.

A study found that consuming three shots of vodka can dramatically drop (15) the carotenoid antioxidants in the skin in just eight minutes. Consuming the same amount of alcohol with orange juice significantly lengthened the time it takes to get a sunburn.

Alternatively, You can gain an extra 30 minutes in the sun before you burn if you consume antioxidant-rich foods and avoid alcohol.

 

What Is the Best Source of Antioxidants?

Plants naturally have (16) thousands of antioxidants. For example, fruits are rich (17) in phenolic phytonutrients which improve the antioxidant capacity of the blood, thereby protecting us from the free radicals we are exposed to on a regular basis.

Of all fruits, berries may have (18) the most antioxidants (there may be a fruit or undiscovered antioxidant waiting to be found). Which berries have the most antioxidants? Amla berries (gooseberries) have over 200 times the amount of antioxidants as blueberries!

The easiest way to increase the antioxidant power of any meal is to add amla berry powder. I add a little Terrasoul Superfoods organic Amla Berry Powder in just about everything I eat.

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Spices, however, have the most antioxidants ounce for ounce and may have as much as 10 times more antioxidants than seeds and nuts. Some spices are so rich that even just a pinch can greatly improve the antioxidant quality of any meal.

Plant foods on average have (18) 64 times more antioxidants than meat, fish, eggs, or dairy. Animal products max out at 100 and plant foods max out at 289,711!

Not only are animal foods low in antioxidants, but they also use up antioxidant reserves. Further, animal products increase the risk of oxidative damage.

Fruits that are low in antioxidants quickly turn brown when they are exposed to air. This is due to oxidation. Adding lemon juice, with all its antioxidants, can help prevent fruit from turning brown (oxidizing). Antioxidants in the food we eat may do the same thing in your body

Do Free Radicals Have A Purpose?

Recent studies have found that ROS may serve (19) multiple functions including cell signaling, killing pathogens, and assisting with necessary oxidation reactions.

ROS  has a role in cell signaling, including apoptosis, gene expression, and the initiation of cell signaling cascades. Further, ROS are produced in all cell types and transmit signals within cells and between cells.

ROS also have an important role in an extremely complex intra-cellular regulatory system that is just coming to light. ROS hydrogen peroxide may be a key contributor to intracellular signaling, while nitric oxide may have a vital role in intercellular signaling.

The human body produces ROS and other toxic agents to kill invading microorganisms. Oxidative burst (respiratory burst) is (20) the rapid release of ROS by certain cells following the threat of a pathogen. Whereby ROS can convert into powerful superoxides to kill engulfed pathogens.

 

Aging Not Caused By Free Radicals?

There is an emerging theory of aging that postulates that cellular damage and aging is due to biological imperfections, not ROS.

Proponents argue that heterogeneity, imperfectness, and infidelity of biological systems cause  (20) cellular damage through every biological process. Therefore these biological imperfections are responsible for the accumulation of cellular damage and are the root cause of aging. Simply, life itself is the cause of aging.

This theory allows for oxidative damage to have a role in the aging process, but only as a subset of the total damage.

Damage from ROS and oxidative stress would depend on cell type, the metabolic state of the cell, nutrients, and genotype.  Thus controlling ROS or any other cause of damage, cannot stop the real cause of aging. Because biological imperfectness is the reason for the damage in the first place, scavenging free radicals isn’t enough.

 

Mitochondria And Free Radicals

The Mitochondrial free radical theory of aging proposes that accumulated oxidative damage to the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is a primary cause of aging. Mitochondria are cellular organelles that synthesize ATP in the cell.

Unfortunately, mtDNA is less protected against oxidative damage from free radicals than the DNA in the nucleus. The reason is that antioxidants can’t penetrate the mitochondrial membrane to enter the mitochondria. Therefore, most dietary sources of antioxidants are unable to directly protect the mitochondria.

Learn more in Mitochondria is the Powerhouse of the Cell

Conclusion: Free Radicals: Good or Bad?

  • ROS has a function, but it appears that only natural ROS produced in the body is beneficial.
  • Antioxidants do not appear to neutralize essential ROS
  • Plant foods have more than just antioxidants. Antioxidants are just one of many beneficial substances working in synergy found in plants.
  • Antioxidants in their whole-food form are health-promoting, regardless of their role in ROS.
  • Antioxidant-rich foods can minimize oxidative stress, possibly because of their synergistic effects.
  • Antioxidant supplements are useless at best unless they are natural and in their whole-food form.
  • Free radicals that come from toxins in the environment are harmful and should be minimized
  • Antioxidant-rich foods protect against sunburn and DNA damage, why not other oxidative stressors?
  • Regardless of free radicals, eating antioxidant-rich foods has many health benefits.

 

How to Fight Free Radicals

  • Avoid toxins from food or your environment
  • Reduce or eliminate animal fats from your diet
  • Eat antioxidant-rich foods (like amla berry powder) at every meal
  • Avoid or limit alcohol, especially before spending time in the sun

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Sources Cited

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3901353/
  2. https://www.biotek.com/resources/white-papers/an-introduction-to-reactive-oxygen-species-measurement-of-ros-in-cells/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249911/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3901353/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17536129
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10946914
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/222498
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17536129
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249911/
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23132168
  11. https://www.hormone.org/hormones-and-health/hormones/prostaglandins
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3613501/
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23507127
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11340098
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23147451
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841576/
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20955646
  18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15186133
  19. https://www.biotek.com/resources/white-papers/an-introduction-to-reactive-oxygen-species-measurement-of-ros-in-cells/
  20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3901353/

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