Free radicals are organic atoms or molecules consisting of two or more atoms responsible for aging, tissue damage, and possibly some diseases.
The nucleus of an atom is surrounded by a cloud of electrons usually in pairs, but occasionally an atom loses an electron leaving the atom with an "unpaired" electron giving it a negative charge and making it very reactive.
They do not have an even number of electrons, so they are always searching for an extra electron they can "steal" to become stable, bonding with other atoms destroying their vigor and perpetuating the detrimental process.
Out in the world, this is a normal process, but in the body, it can result in unnecessary damage.
Free radicals are "free" because they float around until they are stabilize, and "radical" in the sense that there are a wide variety of molecules from which they can take an electron.
However, the damage doesn't stop there, as the new molecule, say a piece of cell wall is now also missing an electron and has become another radical looking to rob an electron. This snowball effect, or oxidative damage, can wreak havoc on healthy tissue killing or damaging cells in an organism causing aging.
Ironically, this energy-generation mechanism is also essential to life. We need a balance of radicals, not too many or too little.
Cell membranes are made of unsaturated lipids. The unsaturated lipid molecules of cell membranes are particularly susceptible to this damaging free radical process and readily contribute to the uncontrolled chain reaction.
Oxidative damage, another name for the chemical reaction, can lead to a breakdown or even hardening of lipids, which make up all cell walls.
If the cell wall is hardened (lipid peroxidation) then it becomes impossible for the cell to properly get its nutrients, get signals from other cells to perform an action (such as firing of a neuron), and many other cellular activities can be affected.
In addition to the cell walls, other biological molecules are also susceptible to damage, including RNA, DNA and protein enzymes.
Antioxidantsfound in fresh foods like vegetables and fruits, particularly in Vitamin A, E, and beta-carotene are the antidotes to this oxidative damage done by "free radicals".
These amazing molecules act like a giant boulder in the path of the snowball, stopping oxidative damage from continuing unchecked.
Antioxidants neutralize the negatively charged atoms by donating one of their own electrons, ending the electron "stealing" reaction leaving the antioxidants still stable.
They act as scavengers, helping to prevent cell and tissue damage that could lead to cellular damage and disease.
The best way to ensure adequate intake of the antioxidant nutrients is through a balanced diet consisting of 5-8 servings of fruits and vegetables.
But if you don't eat, or can't eat this balanced diet, dietary supplements are probably your answer. But how much?
Don't just go out and stock pile your pantry with mega-doses of these vitamins, be warned; more is not always better.
Normally, the body can handle free radicals, but if antioxidants are unavailable or too heavily present excessive cellular damage can occur.
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