Free Radicals 24 August 2009
Free radicals are a byproduct of metabolism. They are formed when food and oxygen are burnt to produce energy for our cells. They are also formed through our exposure to radiation, toxins and stress. A free radical is a molecule with an unpaired electron. This is an unstable structure and stabilises itself by attaching itself to another molecule, in the process destroying it. It’s a process of oxidation. The same process that rusts our cars. We are just slowly rusting from the inside.
Fuel is burnt in the engine of our cells, known as the mitochondria. To combat the free radicals produced and the degenerative process they cause, we have inbuilt antioxidants including Coenzyme Q10, glutathione, lipoic acid and superoxide dismutase as well as plant based antioxidants from fruit and vegetables.
For millions of years, there was a balance between free radical production and antioxidant levels. Unfortunately, in most of us these anti-oxidant systems are now overwhelmed. Increased exposure to toxins, pollution and stress and depletion of vitamins and minerals from plantshas contributed to this. Soils are deplete in antioxidant minerals and food-processing further strips away critical nutrients as does storage and cooking. Additionally many important plant nutrients known for their anti-cancer activity have been removed from foods by selective breeding because of their bitterness.
Free radicals are now known to be the root cause of most degenerative diseases including cancer, heart disease, arthritis and dementia. Research in patients with Alzheimer’s disease has shown much lower antioxidant levels than in age matched controls. Free radicals are also one of the proposed causes of ageing itself.
To maximise our health and vitality we need to both reduce our exposure to free radicals and increase our antioxidant levels. Reducing free radical production includes avoiding cigarette smoking, damaged fats, high stress levels, high iron stores, pesticides and herbicides. Excessive iron from red meat is a powerful promoter of free radicals (see Iron) and has been associated with heart disease and cancer. Iron from plant sources does not have the same risk. Excessive copper also promotes damaging free radicals, has been associated with cancer and accumulates in the brain of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The main source of copper in the average diet is beef.
Maintaining a healthy pH is also crucial in reducing the formation of free radicals. A study published in the September 1997 edition of the journal Archives of Surgery showed that stroke patients undergoing reperfusion of damaged tissue with a healthy pH of 7.4 produce manageable free radicals while tissue acidosis (pH < 7.35) produced more free radicals and more brain damage.
To maximise our intake of plant based antioxidants we need to supplement antioxidant intake and improve the levels of our intrinsic antioxidants. Plants high in antioxidants include almost all vegetables, berries and cherries. Green tea, garlic and turmeric also contain high levels. Curcumin (from turmeric) naturally chelates (removes from tissues) both iron and copper. Resveratol and quercetin from grapes are both powerful protectors against iron and copper induced free radicals.
Research has shown that antioxidant supplements can reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and DNA damage. Antioxidants I recommend include R-alpha lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, grape seed extract, vitamins C, E, B12 and folic acid. There are many antioxidant supplements currently available that conveniently combine all of these in one tablet.
Chief of the intrinsic intracellular antioxidants is glutathione. Recent research has shown a dramatic reduction in cancer risk by restoring intracellular antioxidant levels. Unfortunately glutathione levels decline with age. The good news is that maintaining anabolic metabolism (see Metabolism) increases levels of glutathione. It cannot be raised by taking glutathione supplements because glutathione is manufactured within the cell. If the body is in anabolic metabolism, it takes substrates of glutathione and manufactures more in the cells. Substrates that we can supplement with that are used by DHEA to stimulate glutathione production include the amino acids glutamic acid, glycine and L-cysteine (or N-acetyl-cysteine, it’s more easily absorbed and used form), the mineral selenium, R-alpha lipoic acid and whey protein.