If you’re serious about maintaining and/or optimizing your health and wellness, you’ve likely heard the terms “free radicals”, “oxidative stress”, and “inflammation” thrown around.
You likely have also heard of the important antioxidants play in combating the spread of free radicals.
And, while you might know that these things are important, you might not know exactly what they are and why they are deemed “good” or “bad.”
Today, we discuss what free radicals actually are, and what purposes/roles they serve in the body and how they impact your fitness.
Let’s start by answering the question on all of your minds…
What Are Free Radicals?
To understand what free radicals are, it helps to think back to your old high school chemistry class.
As you might recall, every element or molecule contains a certain amount of protons, neutrons, and electrons.
Protons carry a positive charge. Neutrons, as the name implies, are neutral (meaning they carry no charge. And, electrons carry a negative charge.
Protons and neutrons are contained within the nucleus of the atom, while the electrons orbit the nucleus in a “cloud.”
Electrons are more than 1,800x smaller than either a proton or a neutron and possessconsiderably less mass, which means they are able to move around much more easily compared to protons or neutrons.
When an atom is stable, it contains the same number of electrons as protons.
When an atom loses an electron, it becomes destabilized, which makes it highly reactive. Essentially, it wants to find another atom with an extra electron to pair up with to make it stable again.
This same process goes on in your body, except we’re dealing with free radicals instead of individual atoms.
A free radical is any independent molecular species that contains an unpaired electron in an atomic orbital.
This unpaired electron makes the free radical both highly unstable and reactive (just like an atom with an unpaired electron).
Free radicals can either donate an electron to or accept an electron from other molecules, therefore behaving as oxidants or reductants.
The Human Body and Free Radicals
Now, before you get too alarmed, understand that free radicals are naturally occurring and necessary for existence.
It’s when free radicals are out of control that things begin to get whacky, but more on that in a bit.
Free radicals and other reactive species (reactive oxygen species, reactive nitrogen species, etc.) are created either from:
- Regular essential metabolic processes in the human body, or
- External sources such as exposure to radiation (X-rays), cigarette smoke, air pollution, industrial chemicals, certain drugs, etc.
Sources of free radical generation within the body, include:
- Mitochondria (from the production of ATP)
- Phagocytosis (cells eating large molecules such as bacteria)
- Xanthine oxidase
- Arachidonate pathways
The most notable oxygen-containing free radicals implicated in various disease states:
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Oxygen singlet
- Hydroxyl radical
- Superoxide anion radical
- Nitric oxide radical
- Peroxynitrite radical
While it’s not necessary that you remember the names of each reactive species, you should know that they are highly reactive and are capable of damaging the nucleus and membranes of cells pertinent to lipids, proteins, and DNA.
Furthermore, free radicals and other reactive species attack important macromolecules (protein, carbohydrates, fatty acids, and nucleic acids) leading to cell damage and homeostatic disruption.
In other words, free radicals target a wide range of highly important molecules in the body.
Free Radicals Aren’t Inherently Bad
As we mentioned above, free radicals are naturally produced in the body, and they’re necessary to a certain extent.
For instance, exercise is incredibly beneficial to your health and wellness. Yet, it generates a fair amount of free radicals as well as inflammation.
But, exercise also boosts the body's control mechanisms (i.e. antioxidants).
And, exercise also helps protect against:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Various cancers (colon cancer, breast cancer, and possibly prostate cancer)
Furthermore, free radicals also help kill invading bacteria and also play a role in cell signaling, telling cells to start or stop synthesizing various proteins.
Free radicals also also are involved in:
- Memory formation
- Production, release, and uptake of neurotransmitters
- Synaptic plasticity (the ability of the junction between two neurons to strengthen)
So, free radicals aren’t all bad. They can be beneficial (and essential) to a certain degree, so long as there are approximately the same number of antioxidants around to keep the spread of free radicals in check.
When Free Radicals Go “Bad”
As with most things in life, it’s the “dosage that makes the poison.”
Even water (something absolutely essential to existence) can become toxic if consumed in excess.
Free radicals are no different.
Yes, they are naturally occurring and necessary to survival. And, you wouldn’t want to completely eliminate them altogether either.
But, when free radicals run rampant, deleterious consequences ensue.
Excessive free radicals lead to oxidative stress, which can damage the body’s cells, leading to a range of diseases (mentioned above) as well as cause premature aging (also known as the free radical theory of aging).
This leads to the development of wrinkles and loss of skin elasticity and vibrancy.
Antioxidants to the Rescue!
Antioxidants are chemicals that dampen or prevent the effects of free radicals.
They serve to counter and combat the unregulated proliferation of free radicals and limit the amount of oxidative stress that occurs,
Antioxidants donate an electron to free radicals, thereby reducing their reactivity and instability.
As an added bonus, antioxidants have the unique ability to donate an electron without turning free radicals themselves.
Similar to free radicals, antioxidants are both produced naturally by our bodies and found in the environment (namely, fruits and vegetables).
One of the most powerful endogenous antioxidants is Glutathione. Another notable endogenous antioxidant is CoQ10.
Other popular antioxidants found in our food include:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Alpha Lipoic Acid
- Flavonoids (luteolin and apigenin)
- Anthocyanins (found in dark colored berries)
This list is by no means extensive or complete.
There are literally THOUSANDS of different antioxidants that have been identified in research, and, more importantly, no one, single antioxidant can combat the effects of every free radical in existence.
Just as free radicals exert different effects depending on which area of the body they reside, every antioxidant has its own unique properties and benefits.
What this means is that you should eat a diverse range of fruits and vegetables to get a wide variety of antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins to support your body’s ability to fight oxidative stress as efficiently as possible.
You can also supplement your intake of fruits and veggies by using a high-quality greens and reds supplement, such as 1UP Organic Greens and Reds Superfood.
1UP Organic Greens and Reds Superfood is a premium-grade fruits and veggies supplement supplying 12 handpicked organic green vegetables and fruits alongside 7 handpicked organic red vegetables and fruits to deliver a robust dose of nutrition and antioxidants to support your body’s natural detoxification processes.
Our Organic Greens and Reds Superfood also contains organic prebiotic fiber (to support gut health and immune function).
To top it off, 1UP Organic Greens and Reds Superfood is also USDA Organic and Vegan Certified, Non-GMO, Gluten-Free, Soy Free, and contains:
- No Synthetic or Artificial Ingredients
- No sugar Added
- No sucralose
1UP Organic Greens and Reds Superfood makes a delicious, refreshing drink on its own, and it can also be added into protein shakes or smoothies to further boost nutrition.
- Lobo V, Patil A, Phatak A, Chandra N. Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacogn Rev. 2010;4(8):118‐126. doi:10.4103/0973-7847.70902
- Young IS, Woodside JV. Antioxidants in health and disease. J Clin Pathol. 2001;54:176–86.
- Ebadi M. Antioxidants and free radicals in health and disease: An introduction to reactive oxygen species, oxidative injury, neuronal cell death and therapy in neurodegenerative diseases. Arizona: Prominent Press; 2001.
- Bókkon I. Recognition of functional roles of free radicals. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2012;10(4):287‐288. doi:10.2174/157015912804499474