Grandma's Free Radicals Guide
The Good, Bad and Ugly

Not all free radicals are bad. Free radicals produced by the immune system destroy viruses and bacteria. Others are involved in producing vital hormones and activating enzymes that are needed for life. We need free radicals to produce energy and various substances that the body requires.

Free radicals are normally present in the body in small numbers. Biochemical processes naturally leads to the formation of free radicals, and under normal circumstances the body can keep them in check.

If there is excessive free radical formation, however, damage to cells and tissues can occur. The formation of a large number of free radicals stimulates the formation of more free radicals, leading to even more damage.

The presence of a dangerous number of free radicals can alter the way in which the cells code a genetic material. Changes in protein structure can occur as a result of errors in protein synthesis. The body's immune system may then see this altered protein as a foreign substance and try to destroy it. The formation of mutated proteins can eventually damage the immune system and lead to leukemia and other types of cancer, as well as a host of other diseases.

What are Free Radicals?

A free radical is an atom or group of atoms that contains at least one impaired electron. Electrons are negatively charged particles that usually occur in pairs, forming a chemically stable arrangement. If an electron is impaired, another atom or molecule can easily bond with it, causing a chemical reaction. Because they join so readily with other compounds, free radicals can effect dramatic changes in the body, and they can cause a lot of damage. Each free radical may exist for only a tiny fraction of a second, but he damage it leaves behind can be irreversible.

In addition to damaging genetic material, free radicals can destroy the protective cell membranes. The formation of free radicals can also lead to retention of fluid in the cells, which is involved in the aging process.

Calcium levels in the body may be upset as well. Many different factors can lead to the production of free radicals. Exposure to radiation, whether from the sun or from medical x-rays, activates the formation of free radicals, as does exposure to environment pollutants such as tobacco smoke and automobile exhaust.

Diet also can contribute to the formation of free radicals. When the body obtains nutrients through the diet, it utilizes oxygen and these nutrients to create energy. In this oxidation process, oxygen molecules containing unpaired electrons are released. These oxygen free radicals can cause damage to the body if produced in extremely large amounts. A diet that is high in fat molecules than it does in carbohydrate and protein molecules. Cooking fats at high temperatures, particularly frying foods in oil, can produce large numbers of free radicals.

Free radicals are normally kept in check by the action of free radical scavengers that occur naturally in the body. These scavengers neutralize the free radicals. Certain enzymes serve this vital function.

Four important enzymes that neutralize free radicals are:

  • superoxide dismatase (SOD)
  • methionine reductase
  • catalase
  • glutathione peroxidase

The body makes these a matter of course. There are also a number of nutrients that act as antioxidants , including Vitamin A and beta-carotene , Vitamin C and Vitamin E , and the mineral selenium .

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