What Are Free Radicals?

free radicals attacking healthy cells
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Free radicals is a term that has been in the spotlight quite a bit lately, especially when it comes to skin care, and for good reason too. Free radicals are something that each and every one of us needs to be aware of.


Read on to find out…

What Are Free Radicals?

Each cell within the body is made up of atoms, and those atoms contain an outer shell, which is made up of electrons. The way in which an atom chemically behaves depends on the number of electrons it has in its outer shell.

When this outer shell is full with electrons, the atom is stable, meaning that it behaves normally and does not engage in chemical reactions.

However, sometimes things can go wrong, leaving an atom missing an electron. This is what is referred to as a free radical.

free radical vs normal molecule

Why does this matter?

Because this atom is now unstable, meaning that it is highly reactive. In order to try to stabilize itself, the atom will now try to steal an electron from a nearby molecule, to replace the electron that it is missing.

If this just happened to the odd cell here and there, it would not be too much of a big deal.

But, having just one free radical in your body can quickly lead to…

A Free Radical Chain Reaction

The chain reaction starts off with the very first free radical, who steals an electron from another molecule in order to stabilize itself.

Since that new molecule is now missing an electron, this makes it a free radical. It then goes and steals an electron from another molecule, therefore destabilizing that one, and turning that one into a free radical.

As you can imagine, this quickly causes a domino effect, which ends up damaging entire cells.

How Exactly Are Cells Damaged By Free Radicals?

It is the free radical chain reaction that really damages cells.


To begin with, broken cell membranes are the first result, and this then has an impact on what enters and exits the cell. The DNA within cells can also be damaged, and this can cause new cells to grow in incorrect ways.

Another common problem is that the molecules that are damaged have a difficult time healing, and often end up mutating, growing tumors.

Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress is another result of free radical chain reactions, and this is caused when there are too many free radicals in the body, and therefore too much cellular damage for the body to properly cope with.

It basically refers to the imbalance in your body, and the fact that your body is not able to neutralize all of the free radicals within it. It is actually the same oxidation process that apples experience when they turn brown, or that metal goes through when it rusts.

oxidative stress effect on normal cells

As you can imagine, any type of stress on your body is never going to be a good thing, but oxidative stress has been proven to be particularly harmful…

There are a number of studies that have been carried out in the past few decades that indicate that oxidative stress plays a major role in the development of certain health conditions, such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Certain cancers
  • Macular degeneration
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Alcoholism
  • Ulcers
  • All diseases caused by inflammation, including arthritis and lupus

What Actually Causes Free Radicals?  

As you can see, free radicals are not something that you want in your body, especially once they start creating free radical chain reactions.

But these chain reactions will always start with an individual free radical…

So what exactly causes this atom to be missing an electron in the first place?

Well, free radicals are regularly produced by the body itself, triggered by natural oxidants made in the body. These are free radicals that the body can cope with, as the numbers are relatively low.

However, there are a number of external sources that also result in the formation of free radicals…

Here are just a few of them:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Exposure to UV rays
  • Inhaling chemical solvents, such as those found in paints and cleaning products
  • Pesticides
  • Cosmetics and perfumes
  • Processed foods, especially those with artificial flavorings or color agents
  • Heavy metals in food and water
  • Pollution
  • Medications
  • Chlorine

As you can see, in today’s modern world, it is pretty much impossible to completely avoid all of the free radical triggers out there.

Fortunately, there are a couple of ways in which you can fight the damage that free radicals are causing within your body, by consuming and using ingredients that are able to neutralize them, preventing them from chemically reacting.

formation of free radicals

The Importance of Antioxidants

When it comes to the fight against free radicals, antioxidants are key.

What exactly are antioxidants?

They are molecules that enter into cells and stop free radicals from stealing any electrons, and therefore preventing any damage from being caused.

How do they stop the free radicals from stealing electrons?

By being able to provide the free radicals with the electron that they are missing, therefore neutralizing them and stopping the whole free radical chain reaction in its tracks.

This incredible ability that antioxidants have was only really discovered in the 1990s, when scientists began to realize how much free radicals actually impacted the development of cancer, as well as other chronic conditions. Since then, there have been numerous studies carried out on the way in which antioxidants are able to neutralize free radicals, and while scientists do not yet fully understand how this works, there is no denying the fact that antioxidants are our best form of defence against free radical damage.  

Here are a few other ways in which antioxidants work:

  • They can repair past damage caused by free radicals, which is extremely important when it comes to DNA molecules
  • Certain antioxidants have a chelating effect, meaning that they can attach themselves to toxic metals in your body, which would have otherwise caused free radical formation, and help escort them out of your body through your urine
  • Some antioxidants contain anti-cancer chemicals that not only stop the growth of cancer cells, but also cause them to self-destruct 

Where Do Antioxidants Come From?

The body naturally produces a range of antioxidants on its own, and this is how it is able to defend itself against the free radicals that are also naturally produced by the body.

However, just like with many other bodily functions that slow down with age, antioxidant production declines the older that you get.

So, what can you do about this?

To begin with, you need to be consuming a diet that is rich in antioxidants.

Antioxidant supplements are another option, but this is an area that you need to be extremely careful in…

The Problems With Antioxidant Supplements

The majority of scientists out there would agree that you would be far better off obtaining your antioxidant supply through whole foods, rather than through supplements.


Well, when you purchase an antioxidant supplement, you are usually purchasing a single antioxidant, such as lycopene or vitamin C.

While specific antioxidants have been proven to have certain effects, they hardly ever work on their own…

Instead, a collection of antioxidants is needed in order for the majority of physiological processes to take place.

In fact, research has shown that when certain antioxidants are taken in isolation, this can actually increase a person’s risk of developing cancer. 

There is nothing wrong with taking antioxidant supplements to boost your antioxidant intake, when you know that you are not able to eat enough of a certain type of fruit or vegetable.

However, relying on a supplement in the long term would not be wise.

Don’t Forget About Phytochemicals

Phytochemicals are chemical compounds produced by plants, and are designed to keep them safe from a number of different things, whether this may be predators or diseases. 

Here are a few examples of phytochemicals:

  • Lycopene
  • Quercetin
  • Tannins
  • Phenols

These chemicals are often referred to as antioxidants, even though, technically, they are not.


Because they all play antioxidant roles, meaning that they can help to do everything from reduce inflammation to minimize the effects of oxidation.

Natural Sources of Antioxidants and Phytochemicals

Now that you know that you are best off obtaining your antioxidants from whole foods, which whole foods do you actually need to be eating more of?

Here are the three main antioxidants that the body needs in order to neutralize free radicals, as well as the foods in which you can find them:

  • Vitamin C – also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits and juices, green peppers, cabbage, spinach, kale, kiwi and strawberries
  • Vitamin E – this is a fat soluble vitamin that can be found in nuts, seeds, whole grains, apricots and vegetable and fish oils
  • Beta-Carotene a precursor to vitamin A, beta-carotene is found in liver, egg yolk, milk, butter, carrots, squash, yams, peaches and grains

These three antioxidants are key in combatting free radical damage, but the body does not produce them on its own. This means that you need to ensure that you are consuming enough of them through your diet alone. 

There are many other important antioxidants out there that your body needs, and each one can be found in different foods. To make sure that you have all of your bases covered, here are the foods that you should be incorporating more of into your diet:

  • Brightly colored fruits and vegetables
  • A wide range of berries
  • Grapes or red wine (in moderation!)
  • Tea – green, black and white
  • Cocoa or dark chocolate
  • A wide range of herbs and spices, including oregano, ginger, cinnamon, rosemary and turmeric
  • Essential oils, including ginger, rosemary, cinnamon and oregano

diverse healthy food overlay

Free Radicals and Exercise

There is one other interesting aspect to free radicals that you need to understand…

This is in relation to free radicals and exercise.

When it comes to your health, whether it be your heart, your skin, or anything else, exercise is always a good thing.

However, when free radicals are involved, this gets a little more complicated…

For those who do not exercise much, burning fuel by performing high intensity cardio exercises causes a chemical reaction to occur within your body, resulting in free radicals forming at a much faster rate than usual.

Think this means you should cut back on the amount of exercise that you do?

Not at all. In fact, the opposite is true…

Exercise frequently, on a regular basis, reduces the oxidative stress that the initial bout of exercise brings on, by building up the body’s natural antioxidant defence system.

This means that, when it comes to slowing down the formation of free radicals, regular exercise is key, rather than saving it all for one day of the week.

Other Ways to Minimize Free Radical Damage

In addition to regular exercise, there are a few other ways in which you can minimize the damage that free radicals are causing to the cells in your body, as well as preventing their formation in the first place:

  • Avoid environmental pollutants, whether this may be in the water or the air. If you live in a crowded city but are genuinely worried about free radical damage, it could be worth considering moving
  • Do not overuse medications and antibiotics
  • Take the steps necessary to reduce the amount of stress in your life
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Keep your blood sugar levels, and your cholesterol levels, normalized

Free radical damage is something that the body has always had to naturally deal with, but, due to modern day lifestyles, free radicals now tend to develop in the body at a much faster rate, leading to a number of different issues.

The steps you need to take to minimize free radical damage are not complicated at all, meaning that just making a few slight adjustments to your lifestyle may make all the difference when it comes to keeping you healthy.

One thought on “What Are Free Radicals?”

  1. Linda Peters says:

    Looking forward to winning, my skin needs help!

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