Every day we hear more and more about free radicals and how they are the ultimate cause of innumerable illnesses and health conditions from premature aging to macular degeneration and even some forms of cancer. The problem isn’t in knowing that these microscopic enemies exist – we know they do! The problem is how to fight free radicals so that they are rendered harmless. There are a number of ways to counteract free radicals beginning with diet and perhaps utilizing supplements and topical solutions that have proven effective in clinical studies as well as in practical applications.
What Is a Free Radical Anyway?
The first step in waging all out warfare is to understand the enemy. Free radicals are atoms floating around the body that have lost an electron, and most often you are looking at an oxygen atom that has lost an electron through oxidation. While it isn’t necessary to understand the scientific process of oxidation, it is important to know that during this process an atom of oxygen loses an electron and becomes unstable. Nature is a wonderful thing, but at times a double edged sword. Now you have these oxygen atoms which are missing an electron (free radicals) floating through your body looking for another atom that has an outer shell that isn’t complete.
The free radical then attaches to those atoms or molecules where it doesn’t belong and when enough of them build up, you have a tumor in the making. Some free radicals don’t cause tumors, however. Sometimes they attack healthy cells causing damage which in turn causes conditions such as premature wrinkling when they attack skin cells and macular degeneration when they attach to cells in the eye. The bad news is that there isn’t a whole lot we can do to prevent free radicals but the good news is that there is a way to counteract them before they can do untold damage.
Nature’s Answer to Free Radicals – Antioxidants
Now if you remember from your chemistry days, an unstable atom, by its very nature, wants to become stable. It will seek another atom to attach to so that the outer layer of electrons is complete. In very simple terms, the antioxidant has a positive charge while free radicals have a negative charge. In other words, the free radical is missing an electron while the antioxidant has an extra in the outer layer. Antioxidants, when introduced to the body will seek out a place to ‘lose’ the extra electron and what better atom than an abundance of free radicals in the bloodstream?
At this point, the antioxidant will attach to the free radical and as a ‘bond’ so that it cannot attach to healthy cells, thereby preventing damage, illness and disease. Of course this is an extremely oversimplified explanation, but you get the point. Once that free radical has the outer electron layer filled there is nothing that it can attach to so you are home free. With that one at least! However, there are millions more where that culprit came from, so the object is to increase your daily intake of antioxidants to provide a continuous supply.
Natural Ways to Fight Free Radicals
Nature has an answer to the problem in foods that are rich in antioxidants. Two of the most powerful antioxidants are vitamins E and C. Some minerals such as selenium, manganese, copper and zinc are also potent antioxidants so the key is to find foods richest in those vitamins and minerals to add to your diet. However, beta carotene and catechins are antioxidants as well. Unfortunately, our diets are comprised of highly processed foods that have lost most of those nutrients so you would need to consider adding fresh, whole foods daily in order to increase your supply of antioxidants. Some foods would include:
- Vitamin C – oranges, blackcurrants, kiwi fruit, mangoes, broccoli, spinach, capsicum and strawberries.
- Vitamin E – vegetable oils (such as wheat germ oil), avocados, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
- Selenium – seafood, offal, lean meat and whole grains.
- Manganese – seafood, lean meat, milk and nuts.
- Copper – seafood, lean meat, milk and nuts.
- Zinc – seafood, lean meat, milk and nuts.
- Beta-carotene – pumpkin, mangoes, apricots, carrots, spinach and parsley.
- Catechins – red wine and tea.
(Source: Better Health Channel “Antioxidants”, State Government of Victoria, Australia)
Antioxidant Supplements and Topicals
Most people choose to add fresh, whole foods to their diets as a way of increasing free radical fighting antioxidants, but there are topical solutions and supplements that can be utilized as well. Many skin care products contain vitamin E while there are countless supplements on the market which contain antioxidant vitamins and minerals. Without espousing any one product or brand, you should look for green tea supplements as a good source of catechins if you don’t like to drink tea! Also, there are a number of Acai Berry products but be forewarned that Acai is delicate so juices would be your best bet as processing the berry inherently leads to loss of nutrients when manufacturing supplements.
Some people add zinc lozenges to their daily regimen because they have proven to be effective in helping to prevent the onset of colds and influenzas, or lessening the severity should you contract a virus as well as in providing antioxidant protection against free radicals. Then there are the Resveratrol supplements that have been quite trendy over the past several years that are not only touted as being the ultimate ‘anti-aging’ supplements but also extremely powerful in counteracting heart disease by clearing plaque from the arteries.
In any case, it is always safe (unless you have food borne allergies!) to add fresh foods to your diet. However, before taking any supplements for the first time you should contact your primary health physician to ascertain what is safe for you to take based on your medical history. Whether you alter your eating habits or opt for supplements, antioxidants are your best defense against free radicals.