Free Radicals and Their Antioxidant Enemy

Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules with an uneven number of electrons. The uneven number allows them to react with other molecules easily. Free radicals can cause significant chain chemical reactions in your body because they react so effortlessly with other molecules; these reactions are called oxidation. An apple turning brown when its skin is broken, food becoming rancid when unrefrigerated, a skin cut becoming inflamed are natural processes called oxidation. Oxidation happens to all living cells, including the ones in our bodies.


Through ultraviolet rays, radiation, pollution, stress, and poor nutrition, free radicals attack us. Uneven molecules are unstable because they do not have even electrons, so they are always searching for an extra electron they can “steal” to become stable, resulting in unnecessary and unwanted damage. The damage doesn’t stop there because once a molecule has been robbed, it no longer has an even number of electrons and becomes another free radical. This snowball effect can wreak havoc on healthy tissue. When free radicals attack, they don’t just kill cells to acquire their missing molecule; if free radicals simply killed a cell, it wouldn’t be so bad the body could regenerate another one. Free radicals often injure the cell, damaging the DNA, which creates the seed for disease.


To help your body protect itself from the rigors of oxidation, “Mother Nature” provides thousands of different antioxidants in various amounts in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes when your body needs to put up its best defense, especially true in today’s environment, antioxidants are crucial to your health. “Antioxidants stop the chain reaction of free radical formation and benefit our health by boosting our immune system. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals either by providing the extra electron needed to make a pair or by breaking down the free radical molecule to render it harmless. Barazesh. S. (2021). PennState.


Antioxidants are categorized as either water- or fat-soluble. Water-soluble antioxidants perform their actions in the fluid inside and outside cells, whereas fat-soluble act primarily in cell membranes. Vitamin C is a water-soluble antioxidant, and vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant. 


Vitamin E is found in plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Examples of these are wheat germ oil, sunflower, safflower, soybean oil, sunflower seeds, almonds, peanuts, peanut butter, beet greens, collard greens, spinach, pumpkin, red bell pepper, asparagus, mango, and avocado. 


Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, berries, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and spinach.


Today, people are looking to make things easier by taking a pill for all that ails them; I caution against taking vitamins that promise high antioxidant intake as research suggests that these may be dangerous. Much better to get the vitamins that you need from your everyday diet.


Cathy Parkinson, CQSW, DIP C. 

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