Free Radicals & Rockers
Ten years ago the idea that free radical damage underlies both the aging process and the development of degenerative diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and arthritis, seemed absurd. Nowadays we know different. Free radicals are all the rage. Every other book on health you come across is warning about the dangers of free radicals and telling you to take lots of vitamins A, C, and E, to protect yourself from these horrible demons.
A free radical is a molecule with an unpaired electron, lustfully searching for a mate. There are several kinds of free radicals. Oxygen free radicals are particularly malevolent. They react quickly and greedily with other molecules. When they find a mate – and just about any mate will do – they can destroy cell membranes, disrupt DNA (the cell’s genetic material) and wreak havoc with the body. Many things cause the production of free radicals. Air pollution, for instance, being exposed to ultra violet light or radiation, pesticides on foods, drugs, cigarette smoke, exposure to some plastics, and even polyunsaturated fats. Flying in jets also produces free radicals, as does living at a high altitude because in both cases you are subject to high levels of gamma radiation. Even exercise produces free radicals. And the experts on aging are right. Free radicals do cause terrible damage to the body. But only when they are produced in excess. There are lots of good things to be said about free radicals as well. This is something all those little books and articles on swallowing more ACE vitamins fail to tell you.
What makes energy yielding metabolism possible in our bodies – in effect what keeps us alive – is the ability that we have evolved throughout the ages to take nutrients in through our foods and convert them into chemical and bioelectrical energy. We do this through oxidation or burning in a process known as aerobic metabolism. Enzymes in the body – living catalysts that make redox reactions possible – carefully control a series of small steps which liberate the maximum amount of energy present for effective use, while causing the minimum amount of disturbance to our cells. It is an enormously efficient way of producing and releasing energy which involves the transfer of electrons from one molecule to another. Scientists call this transfer an oxidation-reduction or a redox-reaction. So long as we live redox-reactions take place ceaselessly. The trouble is – and here’s where free radical damage comes in – a number of highly reactive, potentially toxic and destructive species of molecules are generated in the process.
The greater the bodily activity at any particular place or time, the more free radicals we generate. Our brain is a particularly demanding organ when it comes to energy. About 20% of our body’s oxygen consumption is used by the brain. This gives the brain an enormous amount of energy but it also creates a fertile ground for free radicals to breed. Surges of various hormones in our bodies such as adrenaline and noradrenaline generate hydrogen peroxide which can also result in the formation of more free radicals – so much so that we frequently generate more than our antioxidant defense mechanisms can handle. Most free radicals are generated during the day. Some researchers believe that free radical formation in the day time and free radical quenching that occurs at night while we sleep may be the driving power behind the circadian rhythms – that is the biological control of events in the body.
10,000 hits a day
What is amazing is just how enormous free radical activity is in the human body. One of the major experts in free radical biochemistry, Dr Bruce Ames at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that every cell in our body experiences 10,000 free radical `hits’ each day of our life. A well nourished, healthy body is equipped to handle them. As humans we have amazing antioxidant defense mechanisms – enzymes like glutathione peroxidase, super-oxide dismutase and catalase. Provided we are leading a balanced life, eating plenty of fresh foods, getting optimum amounts of exercise, and are not exposed to excessive amounts of chemical pollution, all should go well.
What’s happening to many of us, however, is that we are subjected to more free radical activity than our natural antioxidant mechanisms can detoxify. Then we get oxidation damage as excess free radicalss wreak havoc with our bodies. They can form cataracts in the eyes, trigger Alzheimer’s disease, cause premature aging and the build up of cholesterol in the arteries, as well as a thousand other negative changes associated with aging.
So free radicals put us in the strange position of being totally dependent upon them for our life energy yet completely susceptible to their toxic effects – what in biochemistry is know as oxidizing-stress or oxy-stress. It is this oxy-stress which poses a continuous challenge to the integrity of our cells and tissues. As the free radical enthusiasts point out, this is the central cause of premature aging.
The key to making free radical biochemistry work for you instead of against you, is balance. When there are too many free radicals produced in your system as a result of poor digestion, or stress, or exposure to excessive ultraviolet light, or pollutants in air and water, then you suffer oxy-stress. Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E, beta carotene, Co Enzyme Q10, selenium and many potent plant-based factors like pycogynol, help quench oxy-stress and prevent free radical damage. So nowadays we are continually urged to take more of them to prevent premature aging and illness. Yet this is not quite as simple as the free radical rockers would have us believe. And popping pills is not always the best way to go about it.