I hear the terms “free radicals” and “antioxidants” thrown around a lot, but the extent of my knowledge was that free radicals were bad and antioxidants were good. I wanted to know more, so I researched it and synthesized my findings here. The information is quite fascinating.
Free Radical Test
If you want to see how much your body has been affected by free radicals you can do the following test: Hold out your hand with the palm facing down in a relaxed position, then pinch the skin on the back of the hand by lifting up the fold and releasing it. If the skin snaps quickly back into place, then you have minimal free radical damage. If the skin takes a few seconds to go back into place, then that is a bad sign and you will want to take immediate steps to adjust your diet to eliminate free radicals and incorporate as many antioxidants as you can.
What are Free Radicals?
Free radicals are atoms that have unpaired electrons in their outer shell. These dangling covalent bonds make free radicals highly reactive to other substances or even to each other. In our bodies, they can create abnormal cells that can lead to a growing list of diseases from cataracts to cancer and leads to oxidative stres (where your body is kind of rusting from the inside out). What’s scary about free radicals is that they are able to penetrate into the DNA of a cell and damage its blueprint so that the cell will reproduce mutated cells that can then replicate without normal controls.
But they’re not all bad. In his article on the Weston A. Price foundation, Staying on Top of Oxidative Stress, Stephen Byrnes, ND, RNCP, states that, “free radicals are involved in many cellular functions and are a normal part of living. When, for example, a mitochondria within a cell burns glucose for fuel, the mitochondria oxidizes the glucose and in so doing generates free radicals. White blood cells also use free radicals to attack and destroy bacteria, viruses and virus-infected cells. The detoxifying actions of the liver also require free radicals.”
Where Do Free Radicals Come From?
When the body is fed poorly, it slowly starves at the cellular level, all systems become weaker, and then these weak systems become prime targets for free radical attack. The major sources of dietary free radicals are chemically-altered fats from commercial vegetable oils, vegetable shortening and all oils heated to very high temperatures. Excessive sugar can also contribute to free radical damage. Stephen Byrnes further states that, “Free radicals are also released in the body from the detoxification of drugs (whether legal or illegal), artificial food colorings and flavorings, smog, preservatives in processed foods, alcohol, cigarette smoke, chlorinated drinking water, pesticides, radiation, cleaning fluids, heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, and assorted chemicals such as solvent traces found in processed foods and aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene and naphthalene (found in moth balls).” Even psychological stress can produce certain hormones that generate free radicals.
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are scavengers on the look out for free radicals. They stabilize the free radicals by giving them the electron they need to calm down. The also work to prevent free radicals from forming in the body. In the process, the antioxidant sacrifices itself.
Watch this video that shows a great explanation of how free radicals and antioxidants work.
Where Do Antioxidants Come From?
As people age, they are exposed to more and more free radicals, but the body has a wonderful way of repairing itself with cholesterol, which is a major antioxidant. This is probably why the serum cholesterol levels rise as people get older and why people with higher cholesterol live longer. Stephen Byrnes explains that, “the main antioxidants are vitamins A, E and C, betacarotene, glutathione, bioflavonoids, selenium, zinc, CoQ10 (ubiquinone), and various phyto-chemicals from herbs and foods. Green tea, for example, is rich in polyphenols–powerful antioxidants that help fight cancer.” Alpha lipoic acid is another amazing antioxidant that can help to reduce insulin resistance and helps to repair the body after a strenuous workout.
Glutathione is pretty much the most powerful antioxidant. It is found inside every single cell in our bodies. It is special because it helps to maximize the activity of all the other antioxidants. It is a complete amino acid (cysteine, glycine and glutamate), it removes toxins from our cells, and it protects us from the damaging effects of radiation, chemicals, and environmental pollutants. So where can we get glutathoine?
The best way to get glutathione is high quality whey protein. The best kind to get is cold pressed, from grass-fed cows, and free of hormones, chemicals, and sugar. I have a wonderful book that I enjoy reading called Trim Healthy Mama. In it, Serena Allison and Pearl Barrett talk about the amazing benefits of whey protein including how it helps stimulate the hormones that enhance fat burning, eliminate sugar cravings and hunger by promoting a stable blood sugar, boost serotonin levels, fight breast cancer, and is a great post workout boost. They say that instead of asking for Christmas or birthday presents, they just ask for whey protein! It also occurs in raw milk, raw eggs, and raw meat. *Consuming raw meat can lead to intestinal parasites, so I personally wouldn’t do it.
Fresh fruits and raw vegetables provide an excellent source of glutathione. This goes away once cooked, however. Spinach, potatoes, asparagus, avocado, squash, okra, cauliflower, broccoli, walnuts, garlic and tomatoes have the highest glutathione per serving. *The oxalic acid in raw spinach prevents the absorption of calcium.
With all of the environmental toxins, poor dietary habits, and prevalence of diseases such as cancer, it seems like a good idea to do whatever we can (especially when we’re young) to eliminate things containing free radicals and to boost our intake of antioxidants.
For additional reading:
- Staying on Top of Oxidative Stress by Stephen Byrnes, ND, RNCP (on the Weston A. Price Foundation website)
- This ONE Antioxidant Keeps All Other Antioxidants Performing at Peak Levels by Dr. Mercola and Ori Hofmekler