by Susan Kapatoes, MHA, CPC
What are Free Radicals?
A free radical can be defined as any molecule that contains an unpaired electron in its atomic orbital. The presence of an unpaired electron results in common characteristics that are shared by most radicals such as instability and extreme reactiveness. For this discussion, we are focusing upon the harmful effects that may result from free radicals being present within the human body.
Once the formation of free radicals begins within the body, a chain reaction can occur, creating more and more free radicals. Imagine a molecule floating within our body that only has one electron in its atomic orbital (free radical). This molecule is looking to steal an electron from another molecule so that it becomes paired and more stabilized.
When this free radical pulls another electron from a molecule, it destabilizes the molecule and turns it into a free radical. That molecule then takes an electron from another molecule, turning it into a free radical, and so-on and so-on. This domino effect can have detrimental effects to the whole cell and eventually cause damage.
The primary targets in the human body that are damaged by free radicals are proteins, DNA, and lipids. Free radicals can lodge themselves within the membranes of our cells and disrupt the body’s ability to maintain a state of homeostasis.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, free radical chain reactions may change the structure of a lipid, making it more likely to become trapped in an artery. The damaged molecules may mutate and grow tumors. Or, the free radicals may alter DNA code.
Where do free radicals come from?
We are exposed to free radicals from a variety of sources that originate from both internal and external origins. The good news is that there are ways to neutralize the negative impact that free radicals can have upon our physical body so that we can remain healthy in the long term.
Internally, free radicals originate from natural metabolic processes within the human body. These include the biochemical processes of respiration, energy production, the inflammatory response pathway, and others.
Externally, free radicals can be found in air pollutants, cigarette smoke, ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, radon, and industrial chemicals. The foods that we eat can also promote the formation of free radicals. By eating a balanced and healthy diet, our body has the capability to fight off free radicals and keep them in check. Here is where we introduce antioxidants for they act as our body’s natural defense system against free radicals.
What are antioxidants?
An antioxidant is a molecule stable enough to donate an electron to a rampaging free radical and neutralize it, thereby reducing its capacity to damage. Antioxidants can also scavenge free radicals and destroy them. They can safely interact with free radicals and terminate the chain reaction before cells are damaged.
Our body produces some antioxidants on its own, but we need additional antioxidants from our diet to effectively counterbalance the detrimental effects of free radicals. The optimal source of antioxidants comes through our diet. Specifically, a plant-based diet has demonstrated stronger antioxidant activity than a diet that is primarily animal-based.
Studies have shown that there are large amounts of antioxidants in fruits, vegetables, and nuts. There are smaller amounts of antioxidants in meats, poultry, and fish. Junk foods, cakes, pastries, and other highly processed fast foods tend to be much lower in antioxidants which comes as no surprise.
There are many substances that can act like antioxidants, but the principle antioxidants are vitamin E (α-tocopherol), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), and beta-carotene. The body cannot manufacture these micronutrients, so they must be supplied in the diet. They are found in a variety of foods, but they are highest in plant sources.
Many antioxidant compounds, naturally occurring in plant sources, have been identified as free radical scavengers. A study published in Advances in Nutrition showed that the dietary phytochemicals of fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods displayed potent antioxidant activity.
Research has also shown that it is more efficient to obtain your antioxidants by eating fruits and vegetables in their whole form versus taking antioxidant supplements. This is because whole fruits and vegetables contain a myriad of other bio-active compounds that have synergistic activities when they are consumed in their natural unaltered state.
What is Functional Food?
The term functional food was born from the perspective that food is not only necessary for keeping the human body alive. It also viewed as a source of comfort and support for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
This is demonstrated during those times when we are experiencing hunger. When are stomach is growling, our mood might be growling as well. We are probably not feeling very peaceful when our mind is thinking about our next meal and wondering when we will eat again.
When we satisfy our hunger with a meal that is made from high quality ingredients or a home cooked meal that is lovingly prepared from a family member, we not only feel satisfaction on a physical level, but we also feel nurtured to the core of our being, both emotionally and physically.
Our food is considered functional if it adds benefit to the human body’s physiological processes and helps to maintain our psychological state of wellness. Whole foods represent the simplest example of functional food which consist of beneficial ingredients such as dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids.
The Challenge of Eating Functional Food
If you are fortunate enough to live in a developed country where there is an abundance of food choices, then you are blessed. It is wonderful to have so many opportunities to fine-tune our taste buds and choose from the myriad of foods at the grocery store. But along with this blessing comes the challenge of making healthy eating decisions. It takes self-discipline to resist the foods that are not beneficial for your health.
As you know, the junk food that tastes good to your palette is not very good for your body. The sodas, cakes, pastries, white bread, packaged and processed foods offer little nutritional value, and they are often high in sugar and non-essential ingredients such as artificial colors and preservatives.
Having the proper knowledge and a support system in place can help you develop the will power that is necessary to make those healthy food choices. When you are aware that the cheesecake you are eating could be harming your cells and clogging your arteries, you might be more willing to say NO when you otherwise would have said yes.
If you are a person who has difficulty following through with your good intentions when it comes to making healthy food choices, then I can help you strengthen your willpower and provide you with a support structure so that you can feel confident about your dietary decisions.
Being consistent and persistent is essential for your long term success in any personal development endeavor – whether it be a physical challenge such as changing your dietary lifestyle or upgrading your mental attitude so that your thought patterns support your health and well-being.
The cell damage done by free radicals is the cause of many chronic diseases that we see in the world today. We are exposed to free radicals on a daily basis — from the natural metabolic processes within the human body to external sources such as environmental pollution, cigarette smoke, and the foods that we consume from day-to-day.
Antioxidants are the body’s natural defense system against free radicals. Our body produces some antioxidants on its own, but it needs an additional supply from our diet in order to optimize our health. The richest source of antioxidants can be found in a plant-based diet that is rich in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts.
If you are interested in how to best protect yourself against the harmful effects of free radicals by eating a healthy diet, then I can help you create a meal plan that will support your preferences and boost your health at the same time. We will keep things simple and design a dietary lifestyle that is easy for you to manage.
Interested in learning more?
Susan Kapatoes, MHA, CPC is a Holistic Health Practitioner, Nutritionist, Reiki Master, Meditation Instructor, and published author. She is the owner of Inspire Your Journey and a Wellness Partner with Amare Global, the Mental Wellness Company. She is available for appointments at the SheBreathes Balance & Wellness Studio in Walpole, MA.
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Eldridge, MD, L. and Hughes, MD, G. (2018). What Exactly Are Free Radicals and Why Are They Important?. [online] Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/information-about-free-radicals-2249103
Lobo, V., Patil, A., Phatak, A., & Chandra, N. (2010). Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacognosy reviews, 4(8), 118-26.
Naha N, Das M, Banerjee A (2018) Toxic Exposure and Life Style Factors on Ageing Brain Neurodegenerative Disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s: Role of Natural Antioxidants to Ameliorate the Condition. J Alcohol Drug Depend 6: 309. DOI: 10.4172/2329-6488.1000309
The Nutrition Source. (2018). Antioxidants: Beyond the Hype. [online] Harvard School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/antioxidants/#potential%20hazards%20of%20antioxidants
Rui Hai Liu; Health-Promoting Components of Fruits and Vegetables in the Diet, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 4, Issue 3, 1 May 2013, Pages 384S–392S, https://doi.org/10.3945/an.112.003517