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Facts About Free Radicals You Ought to Know

Free Radicals

Story at-a-glance -

  • What exactly is the cause of aging — the problem most people try to solve by purchasing these products? All signs point to free radicals, which can lead to devastating effects if left unresolved
  • This page discusses what free radicals are, how they affect your health and the best methods to combat them effectively without putting a dent in your wallet

Spending money on antiaging products isn't uncommon for many people nowadays. According to a report by market intelligence company Zion Market Research, the anti-aging product industry was valued at $140.3 billion in 2015, and is expected to skyrocket to $216.52 billion in 2021.1

But what exactly is the cause of aging — the problem most people try to solve by purchasing these products? All signs point to free radicals, which can lead to devastating effects if left unresolved. This article discusses what free radicals are, how they affect your health and the best methods to combat them effectively without putting a dent in your wallet.

What Are Free Radicals?

Free radicals are unstable and highly reactive atoms or groups of atoms with an unpaired electron.2 Free radicals form in our body when one weak bond between electrons is broken, resulting in an uneven number of electrons. An unpaired electron becomes chemically reactive and will try to get an electron from a neighboring molecule to stabilize itself.3

After the free radical gains an electron, its "victim" is now a molecule short and turns into a free radical that will also try to grab another electron from a molecule. This chain reaction is called a "free radical cascade," which can impair living tissue. There are numerous examples of free radicals, most of which are derived from oxygen atoms and are called "reactive oxygen species" (ROS):4,5

  • Superoxide ion
  • Superoxide anion radical
  • Singlet oxygen or oxygen singlet
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Hydroxyl radical
  • Hypochlorite
  • Nitric oxide radical
  • Peroxynitrite radical

Highly reactive free radicals can damage important molecules like DNA, proteins, carbohydrates and lipids in the nucleus and in cell membranes.6 Free radicals can also overwhelm the body and lead to inflammation, accelerated aging and oxidative aging. To combat free radicals, increase your intake of antioxidants from different sources (more on these to come later), since these may slow down or even prevent the oxidation of molecules.7

What Causes Free Radicals to Form?

Free radicals and other ROS develop because of enzymatic and nonenzymatic reactions, which are normal metabolic processes in the human body. Enzymatic reactions that are responsible for free radical formation include processes in the respiratory chain, in phagocytosis, in prostaglandin synthesis and in the cytochrome P-450 system.8

Free radicals can also develop due to nonenzymatic reactions of oxygen with organic compounds and production initiated by ionizing reactions. In some cases, your immune system, which is responsible for shielding your body from illness, can create free radicals on purpose to neutralize viruses and bacteria.9 10 Free radicals may also develop because of exposure to:

  • X-rays
  • Ozone rays
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Air pollutants
  • Heat
  • Light
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Other environmental factors

There is also evidence suggesting exercise can cause free radical formation. Physical injury from contact sports or concussions may trigger free radical production, although acute exercise can be involved too.11

Exercising prompts the aerobic production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and the consequent leaking of single electrons from the electron transport in Stage 4 of the mitochondria, with the principal location of this electron leak at coenzyme Q. Increased metabolism or moving from rest to submaximal to maximal exercise can also lead to free radical production.

An estimated 4 to 5 percent of the oxygen you consume is converted to free radicals, because anaerobic energy production provides hydrogen ions that can react with an oxygen free radical and form ROS such as hydrogen peroxide. Exercise-induced hypothermia is also another possible reason for increased free radical production in the body.

However, while exercise is known to increase free radical production, it's unlikely that exercise causes substantial damage to a normal healthy individual. Lastly, aside from physical activity, there are foods that can cause free radical formation:12

Fats and oils — These oxidize during storage because of exposure to light, air or heat, leading to free radical formation and development of unpleasant and rancid odors.

Another way for fats and oils to oxidize and trigger free radical production is by heating them to high temperatures, such as when deep-frying. Plus, if you have a habit of reusing cooking fats, they tend to be more oxidized and can produce even more free radicals.

Cooked and processed meats — These foods can become oxidized at high temperatures because of fats in the meat, or because of iron in red meat. Meanwhile, preservatives added to sausages, bacon, ham, hotdogs, salami, corned beef and deli meats can also prompt free radical production.

Alcoholic drinks —These have been classified as a human carcinogen, and the National Cancer Institute emphasizes that because alcohol creates free radicals in the body, which can lead to an increased cancer risk.

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How Does Free Radical Damage Occur?

Free radicals often group themselves in cell membranes in a process called lipid peroxidation, causing the cell lipids to be more prone to oxidative damage. Lipid peroxidation causes the cell membrane to become brittle and leaky, resulting in the cell falling apart and eventually dying.

Free radicals can disrupt DNA duplication, interfere with DNA maintenance and react with the DNA bases by breaking the DNA open or changing its structure. Increased amounts of free radicals in the body can also cause poor cell performance, and raise a person's risk for conditions like:13,14

  • Photoaging
  • Skin inflammation
  • Cataracts
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases

How Antioxidants Work Against Free Radicals

Antioxidants break up free radicals by giving up their own electrons to "feed" free radicals, without developing into free radicals themselves. It's vital that you maintain your body's antioxidant levels, because a low supply can increase your risk for oxidative stress and lead to the onset of accelerated tissue and organ damage, and any of the diseases mentioned earlier. Other positive effects that antioxidants can deliver include:

Slowing down the aging process and promoting optimal skin health

Repairing damaged molecules

Inhibiting metal radical production and effects of free radical-causing metals like mercury and arsenic

Boosting gene expression and endogenous antioxidant production

Acting as a shield against attacks by free radicals and ROS

Prompting cell suicide or apoptosis

The Best Antioxidants for Your Body

It's highly recommended to get a wide array of antioxidants from different sources, and not just stick to one or two types, so you'll be able to reap different optimal benefits. Some of the most ideal antioxidants include:

Antioxidants created in the body Antioxidants from antioxidant-rich foods or supplements
Glutathione — It's found in every single cell of the body and is helpful in protecting the cells and mitochondria from oxidative and peroxidative damage. ResveratrolThis antioxidant was called the "fountain of youth" for its supposed ability to ward off aging-related diseases.
Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) — What makes ALA stand out from other antioxidants is its ability to be easily transported to your brain, making it helpful for people with brain-related diseases. Carotenoids — These refer to a class of over 700 naturally occurring pigments that are responsible for delivering a vibrant color to certain fruits and vegetables.


Carotenoids are divided into two groups: carotenes (without oxygen atoms) like lycopene and beta-carotene and xanthophylls (with oxygen atoms) like lutein, canthaxanthin and zeaxanthin.

CoQ10 — This is used by every cell in the body and is converted by the body to ubiquinol (its reduced form). AstaxanthinThis is a special type of xanthophyll carotenoid produced by the microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis when its water supply dries up to give itself protection against ultraviolet radiation.

Vitamin C —This vitamin has been called the "grandfather" of traditional antioxidants because of its benefits to the body, especially for the bones, blood vessels, tendons and ligaments.

Vitamin E — There are eight natural vitamin E compounds: four tocopherols and four tocotrienols.

There are two ways for the body to raise its antioxidant levels: increasing antioxidant production and obtaining antioxidants from foods or high-quality supplements. You can boost your antioxidant levels by significantly increasing your intake of foods like:

  • Fresh and organically grown vegetables — Antioxidants are abundant in squash, peppers and other green leafy vegetables. The phytochemicals in these foods can act as antioxidants. Sprouts such as pea and sunflower sprouts also contain antioxidants, enzymes, vitamins and minerals. Ideally, grow your own vegetables at home or purchase produce from a trusted local farmer. Some vegetables sold nowadays are sprayed with herbicides, pesticides and insecticides that can worsen health.
  • Fruits — Tomatoes, oranges, kiwifruits, grapes, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries and raspberries are home to antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals. However, consume these fruits in moderation, because the fructose in them can wreak havoc on the body if consumed in large amounts.
  • NutsTo improve heart health and overall well-being, add pecans, walnuts, macadamias and hazelnuts to your diet. Make sure the nuts are organic and raw, and avoid purchasing irradiated or pasteurized nuts.
  • Herbs and spicesFresh herbs are more abundant in antioxidants compared to processed and powdered versions. Antioxidant-rich herbs to try include cloves, ground cinnamon, oregano, turmeric, ginger and garlic.
  • Organic green tea — A powerful antioxidant called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), which can be beneficial for heart health, physical performance and weight, can be found in green tea. There are processed green tea variants that contain very little to no EGCG at all or may be contaminated with fluoride or plastic that can leach into the drink. Always buy organic and loose leaf tea from a reputable source.
  • Raw milkGrass fed cows produce yellowish (not pure white), organic and antioxidant-rich milk. The color is due to the natural antioxidants found in the grass that the cows eat. Cows fed dried grass, hay or an artificial diet of some sort are most likely to produce whiter milk — an indicator of decreased carotenoid and antioxidant content.
  • Free-range chicken eggs — Compared to eggs from chickens in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), these eggs contain more omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants like vitamin E, beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin.15

If you're interested in taking high-quality antioxidant supplements, these are some of the most effective:

  • Astaxanthin with ALA
  • Krill oil
  • Resveratrol
  • Acai berry
  • Vitamin E
  • Liposomal vitamin C
  • CoQ10 or ubiquinol

Consult your physician before taking any of these, and avoid overloading on supplements, because these can lead to adverse health effects. The rule of thumb is not too many but not too few.

Lifestyle Tips to Combat Free Radicals

Apart from what you eat, your lifestyle plays a big role in increasing and/or maintaining constant amounts of antioxidants in the body, stabilizing your health and preventing different disorders from affecting you.16 Here are ways to maximize your antioxidant intake and inhibit free radical formation:

Make sure to get constant and moderate exercise.

Relieve stress by practicing the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), yoga, meditation, mindfulness training and interacting with other people more.

Get enough high-quality sleep.

Try grounding.

Avoid smoking.

Reduce and eliminate sugar and grains from your diet.

Although free radicals may be unavoidable because of certain factors, people can combat them without having to shell out money on products that just target the after-effects of free radicals, and not the reasons why they develop in the first place. Some of the solutions you might be looking for may already be at your fingertips, and it's up to you to use these tools wisely to stop free radicals from compromising on your health.

Frequently Asked Questions About Free Radicals

Q: What are free radicals in the body?

A: Free radicals refer to unstable and highly reactive atoms or groups of atoms that usually have an unpaired electron.17

Q: How are free radicals formed?

A: Free radicals form when a weak bond between electrons is broken and leaves behind an uneven number of electrons. Unpaired electrons become chemically reactive and will try to steal an electron from a neighboring molecule to stabilize itself. This leads to a chain reaction called a free radical cascade, wherein bonds left with an uneven number of electrons will try to grab electrons from other molecules nearby.

Q: Where do free radicals come from?

A: Free radicals form from atoms that are already present in your body. Enzymatic and nonenzymatic reactions, exposure to certain sources, foods and/or exercise can contribute to the proliferation of free radicals in the body.18,19,20,21

Q: Why are free radicals bad?

A: Free radicals can damage your cells by making them prone to oxidative damage, promote poor cell performance, disturb processes that are vital for DNA molecules and possibly increase the risk for certain disorders.

Q: How do antioxidant minerals stabilize free radicals?

A: Antioxidants provide electrons to stabilize harmful free radicals and ensure that all electrons have a corresponding electron paired with it.