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Free Radicals – What They Are, Where Do They Come From and How to Protect Yourself?

What Are Free Radicals?

Free radicals, or reactive Oxygen species (ROS), are unstable molecules which steal electrons from other molecules. This makes those molecules unstable in the process, starting a chain reaction which can lead to damage of many important molecules in our cells. The damage to cell membrane structures, enzymes, and DNA caused by reactive Oxygen species can lead to significant cell damage or even cell death. Cells which die or replicate in a damaged state can lead to premature aging and disease. Heart disease, most cancers, arthritis, macular degeneration, and cataracts have all been shown to have oxidative damage as a causal factor. In fact, scientists now believe that ROS play a significant role in almost all major diseases as well as what we commonly refer to as 'the aging process.'

Where Do They Come From?

We are exposed to free radicals by normal metabolic processes of our cells and from our environment. The series of chemical reactions which produce energy for our cells is called aerobic respiration, and ROS are a byproduct of these reactions. This level of exposure is unavoidable, but our bodies have mechanisms in place to help deal with this exposure. Sources of environmental exposure to ROS include cigarette smoke, smog, and overexposure to sunlight. Over time or as the body is exposed to high levels of reactive Oxygen species from the environment, the body's protective mechanisms can become overwhelmed. This imbalance between ROS and the body's protective antioxidant network is called oxidative stress.

How Can I Protect Myself From Free Radicals?

Limit your exposure.
The level of exposure to ROS from our environment can vary greatly, and is dependent to a large extent upon lifestyle choices. If you smoke, stop smoking now! Every single cigarette you smoke introduces up to 1,000,000,000,000 free radicals into your body! This level of exposure is a very high oxidative stress on your body. Also, avoid areas with high levels of second hand cigarette smoke. For every hour you spend in a smoke filled room, you take in the same oxidative stress on your body as if you smoked four cigarettes yourself. Another lifestyle choice you can make to limit your exposure to ROS is to avoid overexposure to sunlight. Spending some time in the sun can be good for you. However, spending excessive amount of time in the sun without the proper sunscreen protection can lead to heavy ROS generation and damage to your skin, and increase the total oxidative stress in your body.

Increase Your Body's Antioxidant Protection.
In addition to limiting your exposure to ROS, you can also increase your antioxidant levels in your body. Antioxidants are molecules which neutralize reactive Oxygen species and help terminate the chain reaction of damage they cause. The antioxidant network is a number of antioxidants in your body which work together to protect your cells from the damage caused by ROS. In order to work optimally, the protective antioxidant network relies on dietary antioxidants as well as vitamins and mineral cofactors. In order to maximize your antioxidant protection, you can eat foods high in antioxidants or drink antioxidant drinks or juices. Certain varieties of tea are also high in antioxidants. For those who are unlikely to realistically change their dietary habits to include a bare minimum of 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables or the recommended 9-11 servings, you may wish to consider an antioxidant vitamin supplement.

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