A free radical reaction is a byproduct of your body's metabolism. Your body has to produce energy in order to carry out all of the necessary functions that are critical to its survival. You get the necessary components you need for this from the food you eat and the air you breathe. This process of converting food and oxygen into energy is called your metabolism.
During metabolism, some oxygen molecules escape and become highly unstable and reactive particles called free radicals. When these particles are allowed to roam freely and become too numerous, it causes oxidative stress, now considered one of the primary causes of aging and degenerative diseases.
Free radicals are essential for your survival — they perform many valuable functions in your body, including controlling your blood flow, fighting infections, even killing cancer cells. The goal is not to eliminate these highly reactive particles, but to keep them under control.
Stress increases free radical reaction. In addition to normal production by your metabolism, excessive free radicals are also caused by any one of a number of external stress factors, including, but not limited to, the following:
The Free Radical Theory of Aging was discovered in 1954 by an organic chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Denham Harmon. He reasoned that because aging is such a universal phenomenon, it might have a single basic cause.
In subsequent years, Dr. Harmon demonstrated how the effects of free radical reaction could be reversed by nutrients known as antioxidants. He also demonstrated how antioxidants extend the life spans of laboratory animals, and how antioxidants offer protection against heart disease, cancer, brain disease, arthritis, cataracts and all other degenerative conditions associated with aging. Dr. Harmon proved that age-related immune deficiency is caused by oxidative stress — and can be reversed by an increased consumption of antioxidants.
Scientific Significance of the Free Radical Theory. Somewhere in the years ahead, Dr. Harmon's theory might possibly be compared with Galileo's invention of the telescope, Newton's discovery of gravity, and Einstein's theory of relativity. His discovery of antioxidants and free radicals may have more profound implications for the role of nutrition in human health and life extension than anything else known.
It took many years before the Free Radical Theory came to be accepted by the scientific community. But today, among doctors specializing in anti-aging medicine, it has transcended mere theory status and is now considered a scientific fact.
When you examine your body all the way down to the cellular level, you'll find atoms with electrons circling around a nucleus, or center. Healthy atoms always have electrons in pairs, each one holding either a positive or negative charge. A free radical is an unstable, highly-reactive atom or molecule with one or more unpaired electrons.
When one of these particles comes in contact with a stable atom, it will steal the electron it needs from the stable atom, or deposit its extra electron into the stable atom. An atom having an unpaired electron is highly reactive and can initiate a thousand chain reactions within seconds, unless the free radical reaction can be deactivated by restoring the electron pairings.
These particles don't particularly care about where they get their new partners, either. They'll oxidize just about anything that's available — damaging cell membranes and important enzymes, even your DNA. This process of cell oxidation happens more often than you could imagine — about 10,000 times every day for each of the trillions of cells in your body.
When this free radical reaction goes unchecked and damages enough cells in your body, you'll develop disease and accelerate the aging process.
The most common form of damage done by free radical reaction involves the oxidation of fatty compounds called lipids (chemists call fats and oils "lipids"). This is commonly refered to as lipid peroxidation. This process is similar to what happens when fatty foods like butter turn rancid.
Free radicals damage cell membranes. Lipids are a vital component of cell membranes, the outer shell of each and every cell. After many years of exposure to oxidative stress, your cell membranes lose their elasticity. They begin to have difficulty performing their usual functions, such as transferring nutrients and oxygen in and out of the cell, eliminating waste products and repairing DNA damage.
Free radicals damage your DNA. When free radicals penetrate into the nucleus(center) of a cell, they can also attack the genetic material (DNA) that the cell uses to reproduce itself. This is the first step in the formation of a cancer cell.
Cell mitochondria suffer — and you lose energy. Free radical reaction can also attack another component inside the cell called the mitochondria. This is where cellular energy is created. As damaged cells with low energy multiply, you end up with a body that is low on energy, tired all the time, and unable to fight off disease.
So, how do you turn a free radical back into a harmless cell? You give it the extra electron it so desperately wants. And where do you get your supply of extra electrons? You guessed it — from antioxidants! Antioxidants have the ability to surrender electrons to free radicals without adding to the chain reaction.
Antioxidants work everywhere in your body. Because of this fact, antioxidants can address almost any health issue there is.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating that people who consume good amounts of antioxidants feel better, have fewer health problems and more energy. The more you read about antioxidants and how they work, the more you'll want to add more of them to your diet.
To learn more about the basics on antioxidants, try these pages:
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