WHAT ARE FREE RADICALS?
To understand the way that free radicals and antioxidants interact, you must first understand a bit about cells and molecules. The human body is composed of many different types of cells. Cells are composed of many different types of molecules. Molecules consist of one or more atoms of one or more elements joined by chemical bonds. Atoms consist of a nucleus, neutrons, protons and electrons. The number of protons (positively charged particles) in the atom’s nucleus determines the number of electrons (negatively charged particles) surrounding the atom.
Electrons are involved in chemical reactions and are the substance that bonds atoms together to form molecules. Electrons surround, or “orbit” an atom in one or more shells. The innermost shell is full when it has two electrons. When the first shell is full, electrons begin to fill the second shell. When the second shell has eight electrons, it is full, and so on.
The most important structural feature of an atom for determining its chemical behavior is the number of electrons in its outer shell. A substance that has a full outer shell tends not to enter in chemical reactions (an inert substance). Because atoms seek to reach a state of maximum stability, an atom will try to fill its outer shell by either: gaining or losing electrons to either fill or empty its outer shell or sharing its electrons by bonding together with other atoms in order to complete its outer shell.
HOW FREE RADICALS ARE FORMED?
Normally, bonds don’t split in a way that leaves a molecule with an odd, unpaired electron. But when weak bonds split, free radicals are formed. Free radicals are very unstable and react quickly with other compounds, trying to capture the needed electron to gain stability. Generally, free radicals attack the nearest stable molecule, “stealing” its electron. When the “attacked” molecule loses its electron, it becomes a free radical itself, beginning a chain reaction. Once the process is started, it can cascade, finally resulting in the disruption of a living cell.
Free radicals can be formed in three different ways: First, they can arise normally during the process of metabolism; second, the body’s immune systems cells can purposefully create them to neutralize viruses and bacteria; and thirdly, and the most disturbing, are the environmental factors such as pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and herbicides. Thousands of chemicals are added to food and over 700 have been identified in drinking water. Plants are sprayed with toxic chemicals, animals are injected with potent hormones and antibiotics and a significant amount of our food is genetically engineered, processed, refined, frozen and cooked.
Normally, the body can handle free radicals, but if antioxidants are unavailable, or if the free-radical production becomes excessive, damage can occur.
HOW DO ANTIOXIDANTS PREVENT FREE RADICAL DAMAGE?
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by donating one of their own electrons, ending the electron-“stealing” reaction. The antioxidant nutrients themselves don’t become free radicals by donating an electron because they are stable in either form. These antioxidants act as scavengers, helping to prevent cell and tissue damage that could lead to cellular damage and disease.