Free radicals are atoms or molecules containing unpaired electrons. Electrons normally exist in pairs in specific orbitals in atoms or molecules.Free radicals, which contain only a single electron in any orbital, are usually unstable toward losing or picking up an extra electron, so that all electrons in the atom or molecule will be paired.

Note that the unpaired electron does not imply charge – free radicals can be positively charged, negatively charged, or neutral.

Damage occurs when the free radical encounters another molecule and seeks to find another electron to pair its unpaired electron. The free radical often pulls an electron off a neighboring molecule, causing the affected molecule to become a free radical itself. The new free radical can then pull an electron off the next molecule, and a chemical chain reaction of radical production occurs. The free radicals produced in such reactions often terminate by removing an electron from a molecule which becomes changed or cannot function without it, especially in biology. Such an event causes damage to the molecule, and thus to the cell that contains it (since the molecule often becomes dysfunctional).

The chain reaction caused by free radicals can lead to cross-linking of atomic structures. In cases where the free radical-induced chain reaction involves base pair molecules in a strand of DNA, the DNA can become cross-linked.

Free radicals and Aging

Free radicals that are thought to be involved in the process of aging include superoxide and nitric oxide. Specifically, an increase in superoxide affects aging whereas a decrease in nitric oxide formation, or its bioavailability, does the same.

Antioxidants are helpful in reducing and preventing damage from free radical reactions because of their ability to donate electrons which neutralize the radical without forming another. Ascorbic acid, for example, can lose an electron to a free radical and remain stable itself by passing its unstable electron around the antioxidant molecule.

This has led to the hypothesis that large amounts of antioxidants, with their ability to decrease the numbers of free radicals, might lessen the radical damage causing chronic diseases, and even radical damage responsible for aging.

Role of antioxidant.

Many people have heard that food supplements with antioxidants protect us from free radical damage, which is responsible for many of the effects of aging on both the body and mind. But what exactly are free radicals, why are they bad and where do they come from?

When antioxidant levels in the body are lower than those of free radicals, due to factors like poor nutrition, radiation, stress  or lots of incoming toxins, the immune system is overloaded and aging occurs more rapidly. In order to know how to best protect yourself from health problems linked to free radical damage , it helps to understand what types of lifestyle habits or dietary choices cause them to accumulate in the first place. As you’ll learn, drinking antioxidant rich water with things like exercise and stress reduction help reverse the destructive oxidation process.

How Do Free Radicals Cause Damage?

Free radicals can be very harmful, but their production within the body is certainly not abnormal or even entirely bad. Despite contributing to the aging process, free radicals are also essential players in the immune system. Our bodies produce free radicals as byproducts of cellular reactions, metabolism of foods, breathing and other vital functions. The liver produces and uses free radicals for detoxification, while white blood cells send free radicals to destroy bacteria, viruses and damaged cells.

Why are free radicals thought to be dangerous then? As naturopath Dr. Stephen Byrnes explains, free radicals are unstable molecules, meaning they’re always on the lookout for chemical components that other cells have but that they themselves are missing.

Electrons exist in pairs, and free radicals are missing an electron. This is their weapon of sorts: Free radicals “react” with just about anything they come into contact with, robbing cells and compounds of one of their electrons. This process makes the affected (“robbed”) cell or compound unable to function normally and turns some cells into electron-seeking muggers themselves, leading to a chain reaction in the body and the proliferation of even more free radicals. The clean-up crew, our immune system’s “soldiers,” lose their control and end up marauding and pillaging throughout the body, destroying healthy cells and tissues.

What Is “Oxidative Stress,” and How Do Antioxidants Fit In?

Free radicals ultimately harm and age the body over time because they damage DNA, cellular membranes, lipids (fats) stored within blood vessels and enzymes. The damage done by free radicals in the body is known as oxidation:

Oxidation is the same process that browns an apple or rusts metal. Rampaging free radicals react with compounds in the body and oxidize them. The amount of oxidation in the body is a measure of oxidative stress.

High levels of oxidative stress affect every organ and system in the body and have been linked with everything from Alzheimer’s disease, arteriosclerosis, cancer and heart disease to accelerated aging, asthma, diabetes and leaky gut syndrome. Oxidative stress is believed to lead to the development of the most prevalent chronic diseases and disorders killing adults today, especially heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Oxidation lays the foundation for the proliferation of free radicals and damage to cells, muscles, tissue, organs, etc.

Antioxidants counteract free radicals because they’re essentially “self-sacrificing soldiers.”

Our bodies use antioxidants to lessen the impact of free radicals, and our diets give us the tools to do so. Our ability to produce antioxidants in the body declines with age. The reason that antioxidants are often touted as “anti-aging” compounds is because they help protect us from age-related diseases, which are caused in part by free radicals and inflammation.


Major Sources of Free Radicals

So what causes free radicals to proliferate? Basically, the typical “Western lifestyle” — with its processed foods, absence of healthy whole foods, reliance on medications and antibiotics, common use of alcohol or drugs, environmental pollutants, and high stress levels. Free radicals are generated due to oxidation and when toxins are broken down in the body. The liver produces free radicals as it breaks down compounds and removes them.

The major sources of free radicals include: 

Ordinary body functions, such as breathing and digestion

Exposure to radiation

Exposure to other environmental pollutants

Consumption of cigarettes or tobacco, drugs, and alcohol

Certain medications or high use of antibiotics, which leads to antibiotic resistance

A poor diet that includes foods like unhealthy fats, too much sugar, pesticides, herbicides or synthetic additives. Many processed and refined foods contain oxidized fats that add free radicals to the body. Excessive amounts of sugar and sweeteners are other sources of free radical growth that contribute to aging, weight gain and inflammation.

Even too much exercise (overtraining) generates added free radicals

High amounts of emotional or physical stress. Stress hormones (like too much cortisol) can generate free radicals.