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What Are Free Radicals And How Do They Hurt Us?

Free radicals are something that I’m quite sure many of us have heard about over the course of our lives. Yet what exactly are they, and how do they work? Are there any benefits to having them in our bodies? What can we do about them if they’re becoming a problem?

The truth is that while modern science is helping to shed some light on the issue of free radicals, we still aren’t 100% certain about what causes them to chain-react. And we’re still not sure exactly how to deal with them. There are some tips for how to prevent free-radical damage, but they aren’t foolproof.

So it’s important for you to know that in this article, I’m going to be taking a preventative stance. I’m going to try to frame my information in such a way that you are able to equip your body with the tools it needs to deal with the threat of free radicals, rather than trying to give you solutions to help treat preexisting damage.

Due to the mysterious nature of free radicals, it’s best not to assume things. Free radicals are a lot more prominent than many of us would like to think. In reality, we’re only just scratching the surface of the mystery that is free radical molecules and oxidative stress.

However, I don’t want you to think that we’re wandering into complete and utter darkness here! We have some really helpful information that will ultimately give you a better understanding of how free radicals work. They’ll also help you identify how the different foods you eat and even how you exercise determine the level of free radicals in your body, what that means, and what to do about it. So keep reading!

What Are Free Radicals?

Man in natural setting with arms outstretched.

Free radicals exist in us.

Free radicals are a bit complex in nature, but they’re pretty simple in principle. So be sure to have your thinking caps on when you read through this next section. Besides giving some interesting insight into how free radicals work, it’ll also shed some light on the marvelous mysteries that play out within our bodies. Trust me, in some cases it’s more exciting than sci-fi!

Okay, so before we can understand what free radicals are, we need to go back to basics. Free radicals are basically molecules, which means that they’re part of a chemical compound consisting of atoms. Each atom consists of protons, neutrons, electrons and a nucleus, of which the charge of the electrons is essentially the chemical bonding agent holding the atom together.

In some cases, an atom may shed its electrons (on the outer section of the atom) or share electrons with other molecules to ensure that they remain stable. However, these electron bonds are sometimes weak, causing negatively charged oxygen-based electrons to scatter throughout the body.

These can be thought of as free radicals, as now these ‘free’ electrons will race off to find the closest molecule or compounds in an attempt to ‘steal’ an electron from it and balance itself out again to become stable. This causes chain-reaction-like damage, since now each molecule that has an electron ‘stolen’ from it needs to replace it.

Free radicals exist in our bodies purely as a by-product. They’re a form of waste that result from various functions within our bodies as well as from external substances.

Processes such as exercise and our metabolism result in natural forms of free radicals. External factors like deep-fried foods, alcohol, tobacco, and pesticides also cause the formation of free radicals in our bodies.

What Kind Of Damage Do Free Radicals Cause The Skin?

Girl laying down smiling.

Free radicals can affect your skin health.

While there’s a high likelihood that you’ve already got a few free radicals floating around in your system as you read this, how are you supposed to tell once they’ve actually done damage? Or better yet, what should you pay attention to that could give you a better indication of your free radical count and what to do about it?

Firstly, some of the most obvious things to look out for regarding free radical damage are often also signs that the damage is already too far done to reverse completely. So at that point, it’s really just a matter of damage control. Signs can include issues like a change in skin tone or weakened skin that looks elastic and saggy. Free radicals can also break down collagen in the skin and even harm the physical cell membrane. This can cause cells to become damaged and die, leading to issues like wrinkles.

Oxidative stress caused by free radicals has been linked to the formation of a wide variety of diseases, syndromes and health ailments. Examples include Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, gene mutations and cancers, chronic fatigue syndrome, fragile X syndrome, heart and blood vessel disorders, atherosclerosis, heart failure, heart attack and inflammatory diseases. This damage generally occurs when there is an excess of free radicals in relation to the antioxidants that are meant to flush them out (treat them).

Sources Of Free Radicals Breakdown

Of the little we understand about free radicals, we at least know how they originate and where they originate from. Most free radicals are the by-products of internal or endogenous processes and entities that occur naturally within the body. This includes things like our metabolism, mitochondria, peroxisomes, endoplasmic reticulum and phagocytic cells. We can therefore say that free radicals are largely the result of natural causes. Health problems arise when we fail to balance out our bodies by getting enough antioxidants on a regular basis.

Over time, if not flushed out by antioxidants, free radicals tend to gather. This increases the effects of the chain reaction once they become activated. It also worsens the damage that the free radicals do to our body, i.e., the damage builds over time based on the amount of free radicals in our system.

The most common sources of free radicals that we’re likely to encounter, though, are things like alcohol, pollution, tobacco smoke, heavy metals, transition solvents, industrial solvents, radiation and certain types of drugs/medication. However, you can also find them in far less obvious places like your shampoo. Most of the conventional personal care products we use are created with harmful chemical ingredients such as parabens, sulfates and a veritable pot-pourri of chemically enhanced colorants, fragrances and things like formaldehyde, triclosan and polysorbates.

Because of the fact that our skin is porous, when we apply products to our skin or hair, the chemicals penetrate the surface layer of our skin and seep into our system. Besides disrupting our body’s natural hormones, the chemicals also lead to the formation of free radicals. The best way to cut free radicals out of your life is by monitoring what you buy or eat.

How To Minimize The Effects Of Free Radicals

Girl with face mask holding avocado.

Try an avocado DIY face mask.

To minimize the effects of free radicals, avoid as many of the external sources of them as you can. It may be a challenge to do this, but there are a few simple rules you can follow.

The first thing I would recommend that you do is avoid stress as often as possible. Though that may seem more abstract than modern art, it really means focusing on better ways to cope with stress. Excess levels of cortisol (the stress chemical) are linked to the formation of free radicals. So remember, breathe in and out – but please don’t shout! I would also recommend cutting out as many household cleaning products, personal care products and cosmetics as you can. They contain harmful chemicals that only spur the generation of free radicals.

The best alternative is a natural alternative like a DIY recipe. DIY recipes ensure that you know exactly which ingredients are in your products, thus letting you have more control over them, their amounts and their price! This means that instead of using harsh, industrial-grade chemicals on your body, you can use pure, natural products like essential oils, fruits, spices, etc. While it may be a bit of an adjustment for you at first, you’ll find that it’s easy to adapt to a lifestyle that is both healthier and more cost-effective.

Finally, it’s also important that you get enough exercise on a regular basis. Studies show that being a ‘weekend warrior’ (someone who only exercises on weekends) can actually lead to an increase in free radicals in your system. So it’s important to make sure you get enough exercise daily. And always be sure to get enough antioxidants to help prevent the onset of oxidation damage.

Best Foods To Combat Free Radicals

Orange drink with orange slices.

Having vitamin C can protect you against the effects of free radicals.

Two of our most powerful weapons against free radicals forming in our body are also often found in some of the most delicious, natural sources of food that we enjoy on a regular basis. I’m referring to vitamins C and E, and they are two of nature’s most powerful antioxidants. However, there are other natural treatments for free radicals such as vitamin A, as well as beta-carotenes and lycopene, to name a few.

The antioxidants found in these food types helps to entrap the free radicals. They do so by bonding with them or allowing them to bond with the antioxidant. This then allows your body to flush the free radicals out of your system safely and effectively. So, if you’re trying to fight off the free radicals in your system or would simply like to protect your body against the signs of oxidative stress, try to eat as many of these food types as you can a week:

Apricots

Apricots are rich in vitamin C and A and are also a pretty good source of lycopene. This makes the apricot a tasty, healthy and low-fat means of treating free radicals and oxidative stress. Dried apricots work just as well, and they’re a lot easier to carry around. So try to keep a pack in your bag for after gym or when you’re feeling snackish.

Broccoli

Broccoli is relatively cheap, tasty and loaded with incredibly powerful antioxidants such as sulforaphane. I would recommend steaming your broccoli before serving it rather than boiling it. This is the best way to keep healthy nutrients, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants locked in the vegetable. And this ultimately makes it a more effective tool for fighting off oxidative stress.

Spinach

Spinach is a time-old favorite. And when you serve it correctly, it’s beyond delicious. Besides having a large amount of iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, K and E (which are already great for treating free radicals), spinach also has a large amount of beta-carotene. This makes it great for healing the skin whilst flushing out antioxidants.

Raspberries

Raspberries are one of my favorite all-time snacks. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or supper,  I can always make room to snack on a raspberry or two. They may be one of the more expensive berries out there. But they’re tremendously beneficial for the treatment of free radicals as well as generally reducing the signs of oxidative stress damage.

Watermelon

Who doesn’t love watermelon? I don’t think I know of anyone who’s opposed to it. However, besides being an incredibly tasty treat for the warmer seasons, it has a bunch of antioxidants – namely, lycopene. We now know that lycopene is a tremendously effective treatment for free radicals in our system.

Conclusion

Free radicals may be smaller than the eye can see. But they can cause irreversible damage to our bodies and lead to the formation of certain diseases or ailments that can affect us for the rest of our lives. While it may not be at the top of everybody’s watch list, being aware about the effects that free radicals can have on your body as well being conscious of where we’re ingesting them from can make a huge difference in terms of the quality of your health as you get older. Oxidative stress damage is something that builds up over time and doesn’t simply happen overnight.

So in order to avoid many of the common health ailments that affect so many these days, stick to a healthy diet (with at least 5 fruit and vegetable servings a day). Also, stay away from chemical-based products when possible and try to exercise regularly. The effects of free radicals will only become worse as you grow up. It’s therefore best to try and deal with this issue sooner rather than later. This will help you avoid the early onset of aging and poor health that are associated with free radical damage. Better to be safe than sorry!

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