WHAT ARE FREE RADICALS

When we breathe oxygen, a sustaining source of life, it creates high reactive free radical molecules that go on a deadly rampage throughout our bodies. Free radical reactions contribute to the ravages of age by "rusting" cells through breaking down or altering DNA, the master regulator of the cell. This weakens our immune system so that we are more susceptible to disease. Free radicals may cause or aggravate more than 60 aging afflictions. Though free radicals are a by-product of normal metabolism, some are created by radiation, ozone exposure, and cancer-causing chemicals. A free radical cruises the body to link up with another molecule, thus providing an extra electron to that molecule. To restore the balance, molecules latch on to each other triggering a toxic chain reaction damaging cells and genes. A University of Southern California biochemist has discovered a class of enzymes, called macroxyprotheinase (MOP), that are programmed to repair damage caused by free radical reactions. Another class of enzymes, phopholipases, performs a similar function with cell membranes and a third group, nucleases and glycosulases, actually repair the DNA. But eventually, the effects of this damage diminish the cell's ability to make these repairs. Our bodies are ground down from wear and tear and debris that collects in our system. However, a food preservative and vitamins A, C, E and certain enzymes neutralize free radicals by converting them to harmless chemicals. Studies are now in progress to test the disease- fighting potential of these free radical inhibitors. Other studies show that if the "bad" cholesterol, low density lipoprotein (LDL), is modified by free radicals LDL is more readily deposited in the cell walls. Thus free radicals may be pivotal in causing atherosclerosis by aiding the accumulation of fat-filled cells in artery walls. Free radicals may also be the culprits behind much of the damage accompanying heart attacks, strokes and the neurological damage caused by oxygen radicals after injuries to the head and spinal cord or tissue damage in diseases such as emphysema. Scientists studying this relationship predict that within the next ten years our lifespan could be extended by five to eight years though anti-radical agent therapeutics.

Antioxidants

Oxygen damage (oxidation) to your cells may be partly responsible for the effects of aging and certain diseases. Researchers are studying how antioxidants in your food may protect against this damage. As part of their normal function, cells make toxic molecules, called free radicals, which are damaged molecules which are missing an electron. They react with any molecule from which they can take an electron, thereby damaging cells. Antioxidants that occur naturally in your body and certain foods may block some of this damage by donating electrons to stabilize and neutralize the harmful effects of the free radicals. Antioxidants include vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E. Free radicals have been associated with cardiovascular disease, cancer, and cataracts. Recent studies have shown possible benefits of antioxidants in preventing these diseases. 

Researchers are finding that consuming vitamins C and E and beta carotene in amounts far above the USRDAs may offer protection from chronic disease and the effects of aging, as well as boost the immune system. The USRDAs provide safe and adequate amounts of essential nutrients, but adequate levels of certain nutrients are quite different from optimum levels. Vitamins C and E and beta carotene belong to a group of compounds called antioxidants, which help protect the body from damage by free radicals. Free radicals damage healthy cells and are thought to contribute to cancer, heart disease and other chronic diseases. Research suggests that a diet high in vitamin C may help prevent breast cancer, and may play a role in preventing other forms of cancer. Vitamin C may also protect against heart disease by lowering blood pressure, raising levels of HDL (high density lipoprotein) and preventing the oxidation of LDL (low density lipoprotein). Vitamin C may also protect the cornea from damage by ultraviolet light, thus possibly slowing formation of cataracts in later life. Vitamin E may reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. It may also help prevent fatty buildup in the arteries and slow cataract formation. Diets high in beta carotene have been associated with lower rates of heart attack, stroke and lung cancer.

Antioxidants & heart disease

Researchers now believe that oxidation plays a part in how cholesterol becomes a plaque producing, artery-clogging heart stopper. If oxidation is the cause of such nasty pile-up, then antioxidants should prevent them. Research suggests that water-soluble vitamin C, carried in plasma, patrols the bloodstream and deactivates the free radicals. Vitamin E and beta carotene do their job on the surface of certain cholesterol molecules, imbedding in fat-containing cell membranes, and warding off oxidative attacks. It is too early to make specific recommendations regarding vitamin supplements, but a color-rich diet will provide an abundance of these 3 plaque fighting antioxidants.

There is evidence that plaque stability, vasomotor function, and the tendency to thrombosis are subject to modification by specific antioxidants. For example, cellular antioxidants inhibit monocyte adhesion, protect against the cytotoxic effects of oxidized LDL, and inhibit platelet activation. Furthermore, cellular antioxidants protect against the endothelial dysfunction associated with atherosclerosis by preserving endothelium-derived nitric oxide activity.

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Last modified: December 18, 2005