Free radicals are at the root of many health problems. They attack our cells and can render them non-functional. Read now which antioxidants provide particularly reliable protection and which foods contain them!
Free radicals attack the cells and antioxidants protect them
Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules that are dangerously unstable because they are missing an electron in their chemical structure. You are incomplete. So they look for a matching electron to become whole again.
In this search for a suitable binding partner, free radicals are very ruthless and, above all, very hasty. When a free radical is formed, it takes a record-breaking 10-11 seconds (0.00000000001 seconds) to attack any victim.
It aggressively snatches the electron it needs from the next best intact molecule (e.g. molecules of the cell membrane, proteins, or DNA). This electron stealing is called oxidation. Since oxidation – as soon as it exceeds the tolerable extent – puts a strain on the body, it is referred to as oxidative stress.
Free radicals and their consequences for the organism
The stolen molecule is now missing an electron. So it now becomes a free radical itself and goes in search of a victim from whom it could rob an electron.
In this way, a dangerous chain reaction is set in motion. High concentrations of free radicals can therefore trigger countless chain reactions, which can ultimately lead to a high level of oxidative stress and thus to the following massive damage in the body:
- Restricted cell functions or cell death due to membrane damage
- DNA damage resulting in uncontrolled cell division (development of cancer)
- inactivation of enzymes
- Reduced formation of endogenous proteins
- Destruction of receptors on the cell surface: Receptors are specific proteins on the cell surface, in which – according to the lock and key principle – suitable hormones, enzymes, or other substances can dock. This docking sends a specific signal to the cell. For example, cells have receptors for the hormone insulin. When insulin binds to these receptors, the cell gets the signal to take up glucose. The lock-and-key principle is like a kind of code that is intended to ensure that only certain substances can bind to the corresponding receptor and only “authorized” substances are transported into the cells. Substances (e.g. toxins) that do not have a “key” are denied access to the cells. Free radicals can destroy receptors and thus prevent signal transmission. If, for example, the receptors for insulin are destroyed, the cell in question no longer receives any glucose, i.e. no more fuel, and dies.
Antioxidants are necessary because free radicals harm the body
Free radicals cause a lot of damage to our bodies. If you recognize yourself and your problems in the list below, you should try to eat healthier.
Antioxidants protect the skin
Specifically, this damage caused by free radicals manifests itself, for example, in wrinkled and gray skin that lacks any elasticity, in venous weakness, and in varicose veins, since free radicals also damage blood vessels. The latter can also manifest itself in high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems.
Antioxidants protect the eyes
If the fine vessels of the eyes are affected, signs of degeneration and reduced vision occur there.
Antioxidants protect the brain
If the free radicals attack the blood vessels in the brain, sooner or later this can lead to a stroke. If the nerves in the brain are the target of the attacks, this impairs mental alertness and can promote dementia.
Antioxidants protect the cartilage tissue
Free radicals can attack the collagen in cartilage and affect its molecular structure, which can lead to joint problems such as arthritis.
Antioxidants can protect against cancer
If the DNA of the cells is damaged by free radicals, this can lead to so-called cell degeneration. If the body’s own mechanisms, which are supposed to shut down this misguided cell, fail, this cell can multiply and a tumor develops cancer. Also read: Vitamins protect against cancer. Antioxidants were shown to protect against cancer in this study ( 5Trusted Source ).
This small selection of the possible destructive effects of free radicals shows that there will not be a single clinical picture that free radicals are NOT involved in creating.
Antioxidants are helpers in dire need
Only an antioxidant (also called a free radical scavenger) can interrupt the chain reaction of free radicals and thus prevent cell damage.
So before the free radicals snatch an electron from a cell membrane or from an important body protein, the antioxidants step in and voluntarily donate one of their electrons to the free radical. So antioxidants donate their electrons much more easily than a cell membrane or DNA does.
In this way, the body cells remain protected when sufficient antioxidants are present.
An antioxidant ensures that the body’s cells are protected from free radical attacks in two ways:
Antioxidants donate electrons voluntarily to protect cells.
Antioxidants themselves never become a free radical or – after they have given up an electron – are immediately brought back into their antioxidant form and thus ensure an abrupt end to the dangerous chain reaction. For example, if the antioxidant vitamin E has inactivated a radical, it will temporarily become a free radical itself, the so-called vitamin E radical. However, this can never have negative effects, as it is immediately restored to its original form by vitamin C so that it can once again act as an antioxidant. This regeneration of the vitamin E radical is one of the most important tasks of vitamin C.
Free radicals and antioxidants in prehistoric times
Free radicals get a bad rap and it seems like nothing we need to focus on more than eradicating them.
In reality, however, free radicals have existed as long (or longer) as there has been life on earth. Animals and plants had long since developed a number of radical scavenger strategies when our ancestors were still swinging from branch to branch roaring. At that time there was no need to actively and consciously take care of free radicals.
- First, there weren’t nearly as many risk factors back then that could lead to the generation of such an undue amount of free radicals as there are today (see below for risk factors),
- secondly, the lifestyle was significantly healthier (less permanent stress, balanced exercise, more sunlight, etc.) and
- thirdly, the diet provided a very large number of antioxidants, so that a possible excess of free radicals was dealt with in no time.
Free radicals and antioxidants in modern times
Today the situation is quite different. People smoke, drink alcohol, eat junk food, live in conurbations with high traffic volumes and correspondingly high exhaust emissions, are – it seems – exposed to a radioactive meltdown every 25 years, and take medication to counteract even the smallest tingle.
According to conservative estimates, every single one of our 100 trillion body cells is now attacked by several thousand free radicals every day. Large amounts of antioxidants are therefore necessary to put the “radical” army in its place.
Unfortunately, today we are not only exposed to more and more free radicals, but at the same time indulge in a diet that contains fewer and fewer antioxidants and, due to their harmfulness, burdens the body with additional free radicals.
Antioxidants in the diet
While the modern diet based on grains, milk, and meat provides nutrients, protein, carbohydrates, and fats in abundance, antioxidants are few and far between. So people are becoming buxomer and buxomer, but at the same time more and more sick. It has already been shown here that milk hinders the antioxidant activity of fruit.
What is missing is a rich selection of many different vegetables and seedlings, fruits and wild plants, natural oils and fats as well as oilseeds and nuts. All of these foods are optimal and rich sources of valuable antioxidants. A diet based on organic food, therefore, protects against illness and premature aging.
Free radicals can also be helpful
However, free radicals are not always necessarily bad. As is so often the case, quantity makes the difference between good and bad.
This is how our body produces a lot of free radicals itself during everyday activities:
Free radicals in cellular respiration
Our cells constantly need oxygen to produce energy. Free radicals are also formed as a by-product – the more so, the higher the energy production in the body.
Energy production changes according to demand. For example, it increases in stressful situations, during sports, or when you are ill. Consequently, i.a. these three factors increase the number of free radicals naturally.
Free radicals can destroy bacteria and viruses
Moreover, free radicals are not only created as a by-product of some bodily functions. They are produced by our organism – more precisely by our immune system – for a very specific purpose.
Free radicals can not only attack healthy body structures but are also able to specifically destroy pathogens such as aggressive bacteria or viruses or curb acute inflammatory processes. So this is where free radicals are desirable and beneficial.
What antioxidants are there?
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “antioxidants”? Vitamin C? Vitamin C is an antioxidant. That’s correct. However, its antioxidant effects aren’t nearly as overwhelming as its reputation might lead you to believe.
An apple, for example, contains 10 milligrams of vitamin C, but its antioxidant effect is many times greater. It is so large that if the antioxidant effect came from vitamin C alone, it would have to contain 2,250 milligrams of vitamin C, which is not the case.
Apparently, apples also contain a number of other substances that have a much stronger antioxidant effect than vitamin C. This highly effective group includes, for example, enzymes and polyphenols belonging to secondary plant substances (e.g. flavonoids, anthocyanins, isoflavones, etc.)
The five major groups of the most effective antioxidants are
- trace elements
- Phytochemicals (also called bioactive plant compounds or phytochemicals) were originally produced by a plant or fruit to protect that plant or fruit from fungal attacks, insects, or UV radiation. Other phytochemicals with an antioxidant effect are the pigments in the plant, which color flowers, leaves, or fruits. In the human organism, these plant antioxidants can help to stay healthy and alert.