Ubiquitous words in health magazines and blogs, but few know what they really mean.
Understanding free radicals and antioxidants might make you pay more attention to the staff of life – greens, vegetables and fruits. Wait. Isn’t bread the staff of life? Not the one you see in grocery stores. In the old days, before World War Two, usually bread was fermented for several days before baking, so at that time it had a better chance to be called the “staff of life”, although I would still argue.
All right, “anti-oxidants“. They fight oxygen? Not really. Oxygen you breathe is harmless. They fight certain compounds that contain oxygen – free radicals. Although not all free radicals contain oxygen, Reactive Oxygen Species, a type of free radicals, do.
Generally speaking, “free radicals” are characterized by their obsessiveness to react with everything on their way when they get a right chance. In living organisms, Reactive Oxygen Species are the most common type of free radicals. So, that’s why compounds fighting free radicals in your body are called “anti-oxidants”.
Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) are formed naturally, through normal physiological processes. Precisely, when oxygen reacts with certain molecules in your body. Meaning if you were living in a pristine environment far from civilization your body would still produce them. Hence, they are not necessarily bad. Moreover, their presence is mandatory. For example, certain ROS control blood pressure, participate in metabolism and help drive off infections. What’s bad is their excess – that’s when they become a problem. ROS are produced in excess when you make bad lifestyle choices – low-quality diet, smoking, alcohol, pharmaceutical and recreational drugs. As well as when you get exposed to certain environmental conditions such as intense sunlight, air pollutants, ionizing radiation. Some ROS that might be forming in your body as you are reading this are singlet oxygen, superoxide anion, hydroxyl radical, peroxide.
Like I just noted above, ROS love to react, or more accurately they love to steal electrons from atoms on other compounds. Depending on ROS, they may also bond with these atoms. In your body, ROS react with numerous compounds that make up your flesh – lipids, proteins, DNA… They change the chemical composition of these compounds – their original make-up vanishes. For instance, if a certain lipid makes up the membrane of your red blood cell or a certain protein makes up the DNA of your skin cell and seconds later they are transformed into more or less different compounds – that’s unfavorable. The reason? Over time, accumulation of such alterations results in pre-mature aging and diseases – skin roughness and wrinkling, brown spots, cancers, cataracts, stroke – just to name a few. As a matter of fact, according to a Japanese biochemist Yukie Niwa, at least 85% of chronic and degenerative diseases result from free radicals wrecking havoc on the body!
Why are free radicals including ROS so desperate?
Why are ROS and other free radicals so reactive? The only reason behind that is atoms on these compounds are unhappy – they don’t have enough electrons. In case of ROS, oxygen is the atom that lacks electrons.
Just some basic chemistry before proceeding. Oxygen is an atom and all atoms have electron circling around them. Atoms is what matter is made from. If you have a couple atoms linked together, you have a molecule, a compound. To be nice and stable, and therefore not readily react, atoms need to have a whole set of electrons in their outermost orbital. When they don’t, as in case of superoxide anion, for example, they seek molecules with an atom that has those extra electrons. Once they locate it, they get close and react with it, that is, steal an electron from it. Once an electron is abstracted, say, from an atom on your lipid molecule, if you think about it, now this atom doesn’t have enough electrons. This makes the lipid react with oxygen gas yielding another radical! So, ROS causes your lipid to become a free radical! As a result this lipid attacks other lipids, literally its neighbors, stealing electrons from their atoms, making them react with oxygen and ultimately stealing electrons from their neighbors as well. This process goes on and on, like the falling dominoes. At the end, just like in dominoes, the result is destruction and/or altered function of components of your flesh.
Antioxidants sacrifice themselves so that you can feel well and look good
What do antioxidants do? You can think of them as heroes because they sacrifice themselves. Instead of components of your flesh involuntarily having to be electrons donors, antioxidants are the things that give electrons to free radicals. The end result is a safe molecule in place of a flesh-mutilating free radical, a trigger of “domino reactions”. Of course an antioxidant becomes a free radical itself after donating an electron but other antioxidants and special reaction cycles in your body quickly regenerate it, that is, supply it with a missing electron.
Vitamin C and Vitamin E are some of those heroes that may cross your mind. They are very well-known for their antioxidant activity. And they deserve the fame because without them you won’t be feeling well for long. But have you ever heard of astaxanthin? It’s a superhero! It’s 6,000 times stronger than vitamin C and 500 times stronger than vitamin E! Intrigued? More bits and pieces on astaxanthin later!
Unknown to science antioxidants are discovered virtually every month. One of the recent ones is gallic acid – which I briefly touched on in the article about bufalloberries.
Clearer? Now get up and do yourself a favor – make a nice smoothie with lots of greens, beets, broccoli, peppers and tomatoes (throw in a bit of dry oregano and some type of seaweed as well).