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Free Radicals and Antioxidants

As a normal process of your bio-chemistry, oxygen reacts with your cells and creates by-products called free radicals.

Free radicals are actually essential compounds which are used by your body in various ways. White blood cells, which are involved in the body's natural defense system, use free radicals to destroy viruses and bacteria. Free radicals are also directly involved in the production of hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins which help regulate many different essential bodily functions. And your liver, which filters out toxic products in your body, uses free radicals in the process of detoxification.

Unfortunately, free radicals can also have a damaging effect on healthy cells in your body if they become too numerous. This is because free radicals are chemically unstable. Stable molecules in the body have pairs of electrons, but free radicals are chemically unstable because they have at least one electron that is not paired. In order to reach a stable state a free radical "steals" an electron from another molecule. This stable molecule, in turn, becomes a free radical and attacks another molecule, removing its electron. Left unchecked free radicals can thus set a destructive chain reaction in motion that can destroy the function of a very large number of healthy molecules. Scientists call this process oxidation. You're probably already very familiar with this process, because it's oxidation that turns metal rusty, makes a cut apple go brown and turns fat rancid.

But the human body is a very smart piece of machinery, and it's equipped with its own natural defense system against an over-abundance of free radicals. It produces special free radical scavengers called antioxidants (literally meaning anti, or against, oxidation). Antioxidants hunt down free radicals in the body and effectively neutralize them, stopping the chain reaction before vital molecules are damaged. They do this by donating one of their electrons, which makes a free radical stable. They are then harmlessly absorbed by the body.

The trouble is, in today's modern industrialized society we are over-exposed to many different elements which can promote an over-abundance of free radicals. Exhaust fumes and other environmental pollution, high levels of stress, and cigarette smoke are all believed to increase the amount of free radicals in the body.

According to a recent study at the University of California, the damage caused by excess free radicals also accumulates with age and is a major contributor to conditions such as cancer, heart disease and immune system decline. It's also believed that an over-abundance of free radicals can deteriorate muscle and bone, and dramatically speed up the aging process.

So how do you tip the balance in your favor? Simple—eat more vegetables, fruits and other plant-based foods like whole grains, legumes, nuts, and vegetable oils such as olive and peanut oil. These foods are rich in antioxidants and work hand-in-hand with your body's own naturally produced antioxidants to offer you the best protection from free radical damage.

 

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