By Tom, on June 30th, 2011
You may have been told that free radicals are bad for you, but have you ever been told what a free radical is? I haven’t, so I did a some research.
What I found is that the answer is fairly technical and complicated. A free radical is a chemically reactive atom or molecule. Free radicals are what cause iron to rust. When unchecked in the body free radicals can cause all kinds of damage to your body, kind of like rusting your cells. Scientists think cancer may be caused by free radicals damaging certain cells’ DNA.
Free radicals are produced by your body purposefully and as a side-effect of metabolism (especially the metabolism of glucose). Consuming antioxidants is believed to be the best way to prevent the damage caused by free radicals. Potent antioxidants, like vitamins C, E, and A, prevent the damage by grabbing and neutralizing free radicals.
That isn’t the whole story though. Despite what I’ve heard in the media, some free radicals are actually necessary for life. Nitric oxide is a free radical and, among many other biological functions, helps regulate blood pressure (it even plays a role in hair growth).
Then again, some free radicals are double-edged swords. Superoxide, for example, is used extensively by your immune system to fight off bacterial and viral invaders; but it may also be the culprit behind diseases we associate with aging, e.g. cataracts, muscle loss, and macular degeneration.
So, like so many other things in life, having too many or too few free radicals will harm you. In this case, however, if you eat healthily your body should be able to balance this for you.