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Why Free Radicals Cause Disease and How Antioxidants Help

  • Free radicals are atoms that connect to wholesome cells in your physique, damaging them within the course of.
  • You can encounter free radicals within the atmosphere from issues like smoke and alcohol.
  • Combat the damaging results of free radicals by consuming meals wealthy in antioxidants.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for extra recommendation.

You most likely know smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol, and being uncovered to air pollution can contribute to growing old and illness. But have you ever ever puzzled why?

The reply, partially, might be defined by free radicals.

What are free radicals? 

Free radicals are created naturally within the physique throughout your day-to-day, like once you metabolize meals, however they’re additionally generated by exterior sources, says Alexis Parcells, MD, a plastic surgeon and founding father of the anti-aging clinic, SUNNIE

External sources of free radicals embrace: 

  • Air air pollution 
  • Alcohol 
  • Cigarette smoke 
  • Pesticides 
  • Processed meats

How free radicals injury the physique

Free radicals injury the physique as a result of they connect to wholesome cells, which disrupts the cell’s regular life-sustaining capabilities. 


The purpose free radicals connect to cells within the first place is as a result of free radicals are a selected kind of atom, referred to as an unstable atom. 

Generally talking, atoms make up nearly all the pieces, out of your pores and skin cells to the meals you eat. And these atoms are surrounded by electrons. 

Now, when an atom has sufficient electrons, it is referred to as a secure atom, and when it is lacking some electrons, it is unstable. Here’s the vital half: Unstable atoms wish to grow to be secure.

Therein lies the issue with free radicals: They are unstable atoms and, in consequence, search out secure atoms in wholesome cells and steal these atom’s electrons, damaging the cell within the course of. 


Making issues worse is that when free radicals steal electrons from a number of atoms, they create extra unstable atoms, setting off a dangerous chain response.

And when free radicals assault vital molecules within the cell corresponding to DNA, proteins, carbohydrates, and fat, it results in large-scale cell injury and subsequent illness, says Neilank K. Jha, MD, a neurosurgeon and founder of personal concussion clinic Konkussion.

How antioxidants defend in opposition to free radicals

The excellent news is your physique has an antioxidant defense system to guard you from free radicals. 

An antioxidant is any secure compound ready to surrender an electron of their very own to neutralize, or “flip off” free radicals. This additionally stops free radicals from producing extra free radicals. 

“When antioxidants encounter free radicals … the antioxidants bind to them, instantly delivering their additional electron to the free radical, returning them to steadiness earlier than they will hurt your cells,” Parcells says. 

What is oxidative stress?

Sometimes, there are extra free radicals than antioxidants within the physique which leads to a situation generally known as oxidative stress. 

“Oxidative stress is a situation through which oxidative injury happens within the cell due to an unfavorable steadiness between free radicals and antioxidants,” Jha says. “Short-term oxidative stress can happen as a consequence of damage and an infection whereas the long-term outcomes from poor weight-reduction plan and life-style decisions.”

Oxidative stress is believed to be concerned in a number of illnesses, together with:

  • Kidney illness
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular illness
  • Diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s 
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Osteoarthritis 
  • Dementia

How to stop oxidative stress

The excellent news is, you’ll be able to fight oxidative stress by growing the quantity of antioxidants in your physique. While you naturally produce antioxidants like glutathione and melatonin, you too can get them from meals and drinks. 

In truth, plant-based meals, like fruits and greens, add a significant amount of antioxidants to your weight-reduction plan due to their excessive quantity of phytochemicals. 

Examples of phytochemicals embrace vitamin C in oranges, carotenoids in tomatoes and kale, and flavanols in blueberries, inexperienced tea, apples, and onions.

You may also purchase antioxidant dietary supplements. However, research has not discovered a transparent profit from supplementing antioxidants and means that they might even be dangerous. 

For instance, latest massive scale randomized medical trials point out that neither

vitamin E

nor vitamin C supplementation reduces the chance of main cardiovascular occasions in middle-aged and older males, wholesome ladies, or postmenopausal ladies. 

“When it involves consuming antioxidants, I might suggest choosing pure dietary sources versus supplementation,” Jha says. “By consuming antioxidant-rich meals corresponding to fruits and greens, you not solely get the good thing about free-radical protection, however different nutritional vitamins, minerals, and fiber as nicely.”

Insider’s takeaway 

Free radicals are unstable atoms that improve indicators of growing old and contribute to the event of persistent illnesses. 

While free radicals are naturally produced by your physique, they’re additionally created by outdoors components like cigarette smoke and air pollution. 

The excellent news is, your physique naturally produces some antioxidants to fight these damaging molecules, and you’ll be able to increase this protection system by consuming antioxidant-rich meals like fruits, greens, and spices. 

“You’re uncovered to free radicals each day, so whilst you cannot keep away from them fully, you’ll be able to flip to highly effective antioxidants to assist defend your pores and skin and well being,” Parcells says.

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