Once something becomes a popular topic – on the news, online, in forums, or around the coffee shop – it’s easy to get confused, or fall behind. Especially when it seems everyone else understands the conversation. That makes it doubly hard to raise your hand and admit you don’t know.
So, for all of us who have been wondering what are free radicals, but didn't want to admit to not knowing, here’s the down and dirty…
So…What Are Free Radicals?
Remember back in school when you first learned about atoms? Well, apologies to those who hated chemistry, but that’s where the story of free radicals starts…
The outer shell of an atom contains electrons. These electrons are how an atom bonds to another atom to make a molecule. And, the number of electrons around the outside of an atom is decided by how many protons are in the center of the atom.
When an atom has the right number of electrons, it’s stable and happy. When it doesn't have the right number of electrons, it needs to bond with another atom so they can both have the right number of electrons. When this search is successful, both atoms join together to create a molecule, making them stable.
It sounds complicated, yes. But here’s the important part…
Sometimes, when this search isn't successful, you end up with what’s known as a free radical – an atom or molecule with an unpaired electron, making it unstable.
The free radical’s hunt for an electron to pair with can, in essence, rip an electron away from a stable and happy structure. This weakens the other structure, in turn, creating yet another free radical that goes on the hunt and rips away another electron and so on and so forth, continuing the cycle.
And you end up with a “domino effect” of free radical creation.
The Absolute Truth About Free Radicals
Contrary to popular belief, free radicals are not inherently bad. They are actually necessary for several normal, healthy chemical reactions within our bodies.
It’s when free radicals get out of control, when that domino effect starts, that they can cause health problems like premature aging, cell deterioration, and other problems . This domino effect is known as oxidative stress, and the damage caused is called oxidative damage.
Should You Just Avoid Free Radicals?
In a word, no. First, they are indeed important in limited, controlled amounts. But secondly, you can’t avoid them. You’re exposed to free radicals all day, every day. They can be found in cleaning products, pollution, and cigarette smoke.
Even if you stayed away from chemicals and pollutants, free radicals are found in food, the water you drink, even sunlight.
If You Can’t Avoid Free Radicals, How Do You Protect Yourself Against Them?
Luckily, you can counter – and sometimes even reverse – the damage done by free radicals, thanks to antioxidants. Antioxidants are molecules that can interact with free radicals, without becoming free radicals themselves.
The most obvious antioxidants are the ones found in deep, dark colored fruits and vegetables, like blackberries or spinach. However, antioxidants can be found in some vitamins, minerals, and even trace metals.
While it’s easy to get some antioxidants from food and diet, the ones found in minerals and trace metals usually have to be taken in the form of supplements – which are easily accessible.
Yes, free radicals can sound scary, and even a little dangerous, if all you've heard is the sensationalism about them. Once you take the time to learn about them, and get a little bit of perspective on the science behind them, free radicals seem a whole lot more manageable. Even if you can’t avoid free radicals, now you know how to counter them. And knowing is half the battle.
Aren't you glad you asked?