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Free Radical: A Funny Name for a Not-So-Funny Molecule

March 21, 2012

What in the world is a “free radical”? You’ve probably heard the term, which sounds a bit like a liberated revolutionary-type. But, in fact, free radicals relate to your health.

Free radicals are rogue, unstable molecules formed from oxidative processes. In an effort to stabilize themselves, free radicals scavenge electrons from nearby molecules, provoking a chain reaction that affects the stability of large numbers of molecules in your body and can actually alter their chemical structure, or DNA. This leads to cell damage, and may result in inflammation and life-threatening diseases such as cancer.

Free radicals form due to a number of factors, including environmental contaminants, poor dietary habits and smoking. Contamination of our water and air through chemicals and pollutants is key in the formation of these rogue molecules. The carcinogens in these contaminants can bind with the DNA in our cells, making them vulnerable to disease. A diet that is too high in processed foods and too low in nutrients also contributes, as may overconsumption of the pesticides used in conventional agriculture. Cigarette smoke — inhaled both by smokers themselves and as secondhand smoke — is yet another culprit in the formation of these free radicals.

The good news is, antioxidants such as beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, and the minerals selenium and sulfur help fight the oxidative process that forms free radicals. Research strongly suggests that food-based antioxidants – found in a diet rich in fruits and vegetables – are particularly helpful in protecting against free radical damage that can lead in particular to various types of cancer. Elson Haas, M.D., in “Staying Healthy with Nutrition,” explains the mechanism by which this occurs: that antioxidants actually “shuffle” electrons, keeping energy moving to prevent cell damage. Haas gives a very visually memorable example of a game of hot potato, in which electrons are constantly being tossed around, thus circumventing free radical formation.

So, yet another reason to eat your veggies – your mom was right.

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