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Free Radicals and Aging Faster
Nov 1, 2020

“Free radicals” are a special type of atom that have been linked to many age-related diseases. They form as a result of a process called Oxidative Stress, which takes place when an oxygen molecule splits into single atoms with unpaired electrons. The nature of electrons is such that they like to be in pairs and as a result will “freely” and “radically” search throughout the body for another electron to pair with. They could almost be considered romantic if they were not so dangerous!

Their main danger comes from the damage that they cause to cells or cell membrane, proteins, and DNA. Cellular damage occurs when free radicals travel through cells and disrupt the structures of other molecules. The gradual accumulation of them, and the increased damage that builds as more and more of them collect, is what helps cause many of the aforementioned aging diseases. Our body is under constant assault from oxidative stress, and cells may function poorly or die if it occurs too frequently and without proper bodily maintenance.

Free radicals are a waste byproduct that form as a result of various chemical reactions that take place during our bodies’ normal metabolic processes. They are then “dumped,” and their eventual buildup will often harm our bodies much like how factory waste harms the environment However, they are not entirely useless; it is impossible for our bodies to turn air and food into chemical energy without a chain reaction of free radicals. Free radicals are also a critical part of the immune system, as they additionally move through our veins and can confront foreign invaders [1].

What are free radicals?

Understanding free radicals necessitates an elementary knowledge of chemistry.

Electrons orbit around atoms in levels called shells. Each shell is filled by a fixed number of electrons, and when the first shell is full then electrons will start to fill the next shell.

If there is an atom whose outer shell is not full then it may bond with another atom by using the electrons to fill its outer shell. These types of atoms are known as free radicals.

Atoms that have a full outer shell become stable, however free radicals are unstable. They are “desperate” to acquire the full number of electrons that are necessary to fill all of their shells and will therefore react quickly with other substances.

Take the example of oxygen molecules. If they split into single atoms that have unpaired electrons then they too will become unstable free radicals that seek other atoms or molecules to bond to. If this procedure continually occurs, then it will begin a process called oxidative stress.

Smoking, UV rays, air pollution, fast food, pesticides, ionizing radiation, drugs, and inflammation have all been linked to the formation of free radicals. We must be diligent when it comes to understanding how these influences can affect our bodily health, and then fight back with natural antioxidants.

Free radicals are heavily linked to aging

One of the effects of oxidative stress is that it can damage our body’s cells and thus promote many of the diseases and symptoms related to aging, such as wrinkles and gray hair. They will take electrons from other atoms in order to become more stable, a process that may cause diseases or signs of aging [2].              

In 1956, the “Free Radical Theory of Aging” was outlined as a way to understand how exactly our bodies age over time. Everybody ages, and as we age our body loses its ability to fight the effects of free radicals. Over time our bodies produce more free radicals and more oxidative stress, which increases the rate at which cells are damaged and thus can bring about degenerative processes.

Many age-related diseases such as muscular degeneration, certain cancers, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, emphysema, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson's disease, ulcers and all inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and lupus, and many others are linked to free radicals. Free radicals can be found in the food we eat such as fried foods, the medicines we take, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Free radicals are also found in alcohol, tobacco smoke, pesticides, and air pollutants.

Several studies and theories have been linked to oxidative stress and the buildup of free radicals including: [3]

  • Genetic degenerative diseases, such as Huntington’s disease or Parkinson’s
  • Age-related changes in appearance, such as loss of skin elasticity, wrinkles, graying hair, hair loss, and changes in hair texture
  • Cataracts and age-related vision decline
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer, which is associated with chromosomal effects and oncogene activation due to the reaction of free radicals [2]
  • Central nervous system diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and various forms of dementia
  • Cardiovascular diseases due to clogged arteries
  • Autoimmune and inflammatory disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and cancer

The free radical theory of aging is comparatively new; however, several studies boost its credibility. Researchers focused on cell’s mitochondria, the “powerhouse” that process nutrients to power the entire cell. Experiments on rats, for example, showed a noteworthy increase in free radicals as the rats aged. These alterations coincided with age-related declines in their health. These experiments also showed that free radicals produced in the mitochondria harm the substances that the cells need in order to work properly. This damage causes mutations that produce more free radicals, thus accelerating the process of damage to the cell. This helps explain aging since aging quickens over time. The gradual, but increasingly rapid buildup of free radicals, offers one explanation for why even healthy bodies age and depreciate over time [2].

Antioxidants can stave off free radicals

Antioxidants, molecules that prevent other molecules from oxidizing and thus undergoing oxidative stress, can help to avert the harmful effects of free radicals. They can also decrease or even nullify the effects of free radicals, as they can provide an electron to free radicals and thereby reduce their reactivity. The uniqueness of antioxidants is that they can donate an electron without becoming reactive free radicals themselves.

There is no single antioxidant that can combat the effects of every free radical. Free radicals have different effects in different areas of the body, and every antioxidant performs differently due to its chemical properties. Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, glutathione, and plant estrogens called phytoestrogens all scavenge the body and help remove free radicals. Honey can also function similar to antioxidants by removing free radicals. Additionally, selenium, a trace metal that is required for proper function of one of the body's antioxidant enzyme systems, is sometimes included in this category. The body cannot manufacture these micronutrients so they must be supplied in the diet.

Foods that are rich in antioxidants include citrus fruits such as oranges and limes, berries, and many other fruits that are rich in vitamin C. Carrots are known for their high beta-carotene content, while the soy in soybeans, and some meat substitutes, are high in phytoestrogens. Apricots, spinach, mangoes, pumpkins, broccoli, and eggplants are all also helpful, along with a plethora of other fruits and vegetables [4].

More research needed

A 2010 study on antioxidant supplementation for the prevention of prostate cancer found no benefits. Furthermore, a 2012 study found that antioxidants did not lower the risk of lung cancer. On the other hand, the study found that people who were already at a heightened risk of cancer, such as smokers, actually had a slightly elevated risk of cancer due to antioxidants.

Some investigators have found that supplementation with antioxidants is injurious when people take more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA). A recent analysis found that high doses of beta-carotene, or vitamin E, appreciably increased the risk of dying. One study found that long-term use of beta-carotene could reasonably reduce the risk of age-related mental problems [4]. But perhaps one of the most important discoveries is that antioxidants are unable to “cure” the effects of free radicals completely [5].  

Additionally, we do not yet fully understand why free radicals form in the first place. They may result as an early sign of cells fighting diseases, or that free radical formation is simply a natural expectation that comes with aging. It is not possible to understand them completely without more conclusive research, which should be encouraged considering the significant impacts that free radicals can have upon our bodies.