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What Are Free Radicals?

What Are Free Radicals?

There is a lot of discussion about how dangerous free radicals can be, but what are free radicals? Free radicals can sound scary or intimidating.  Are they really as dangerous as people say that they are?  How can they be stopped, or the damage from them prevented?

Free radicals occur naturally.  They occur as single atoms or groups of atoms that have an unpaired, or odd, number of electrons.  They can be formed when oxygen interacts with certain molecules.  During interactions, oxygen causes certain molecules to break down, and these free radicals are leftover components to that process.  Once the free radicals are formed, they are highly reactive (due to their uneven number of electrons), and can quickly start a chain reaction.  The free radicals themselves are not harmful unless they start these chain reactions.  Their chief danger comes from the damage they can cause when they react with important cellular components like DNA or cellular membranes.  When they react with these cellular components, they may cause the cells to function poorly, or even to die.  This cellular damage is a common pathway for things like the effects of aging and a variety of other ailments.

What can be done to stop these potentially dangerous chain reactions once they start?  This is where antioxidants come into play.  Antioxidants are molecules that can safely interact with free radicals, and when they interact with them, they are able to end the chain reaction before vital cellular damage occurs.  The human body naturally produces antioxidants but the process isn’t 100% effective, so it is essential to include these vitamins and nutrients in a daily diet rich in fruits, vegetables and other antioxidant-containing foods.  The main antioxidants that scavenge free radicals are vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and selenium.  Including these as part of a well-balanced diet is important to maintaining health on a cellular level.