Thursday, January 5, 2017

Oxidative Damage from Free Radicals -- What?!

I don't know about you, but sometimes when I read a health article I get lost within the first couple of sentences. I'm relatively intelligent, but how many people can give you an instant definition of terms like:

  • oxidative damage
  • free radicals
  • antioxidants

You might know that all three of these things are related and that the first 2 are bad for you ... and have some idea that the last one is probably good for you. But you may still end up with a giant question mark over your head, especially if you start shopping at the health food store for "good for you" supplements.

Some Simple Health Definitions 
So what do all these phrases mean? Well, they actually are simpler than you think. Let's look at some simple definitions.

Oxidative Damage 
 What does that mean, really? To find out what oxidation does, just look at your car or any piece of metal left exposed to the elements, especially oxygen. When the metal interacts with the oxygen in the air, if not protected the metal will rust. That is a very simple example of oxidative damage.

Oxidative damage can also occur with skin cells. For instance, when you get a cut, the cells around and in the cut are exposed to oxygen and the process of oxidation occurs. While metal rusts, skin cells die. Skin cells can also die from excessive exposure to sun -- this is another form of oxidative damage.

Inside your body, cells interact with oxygen in the air you breathe and the food you eat. Through various complex processes, oxidative damage occurs and cells die off.

Free Radicals 
Free radicals are related to oxidation. Here's how. Cells damaged by oxidation are called free radicals, and end up missing a crucial molecule. These free radical cells then try to "rob" other cells to restore the missing molecule. In the process, the cell that is being robbed gets damaged. When that damage occurs to the DNA, the cell then becomes a mutant cell, and mutant cells are often the start of disease or chronic illness. One free radical cell can often start a free radical "cascade," with each damaged cell in turn damaging another cell. So in short, a free radical is a damaged cell that damages DNA in other cells causing mutation and disease. Whew! Glad that one is out of the way.

Antioxidants
OK, this one is much easier to explain. Going back to the example of the metal in your car, an antioxidant is the body's equivalent of wax and paint, both of which prevent oxidation. Inside the body, antioxidants either prevent the oxidation process or stop the process before it "cascades." Vitamin C, for instance, captures free radical cells and neutralizes them, preventing oxidation from  happening to more cells. Other vitamins, like Vitamin E, stop the free radical cascade process.

These days, experts estimate that the free radical load is much heavier than it was 200 years ago. Almost everything we eat, drink, or breathe can cause oxidative damage. Exposure to outer substances, like smoke or asbestos, can do the same. That's why we need to add a variety of antioxidants to our diets. Our bodies simply can't keep up with all the free radicals being produced.

Powerful Antioxidants 
When deciding which antioxidants to add to your diet, consider that variety is important. Eating 10 servings of the same vegetable every day isn't going to help you much. Powerful antioxidant protection comes from whole food sources that provide a whole spectrum of vitamins, minerals, and trace minerals. Consider adding:

- fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- legumes and nuts
- wheat sprouts, coenzyme Q10, blue-green algae

The effect of antioxidants is supportive over a long period of time rather than instantly dramatic. Just as waxing your car prevents rust, adding antioxidants to your diet supports your body in the face of chronic illness and disease. So know that you are doing something good for your body when you take antioxidants, even if you can't actually "see" the effects with your own two eyes!




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