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What are free radicals and why are we fighting them anyway?

Published on:4 January 2021, 10:27am IST
We are sure you must have heard a lot about free radicals. But now is the time to learn what they actually are and why it is important to fight them.
Grace Bains
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Free radicals
You’ve heard a lot about free radicals, but today let’s find out what they really are. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
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It is the age of information. But it seems we’re aware of too many terms without knowing their meaning. Free radical is a term that definitely falls into that category. We’ve heard about it in terms of diseases and skincare, but what are free radicals exactly? Well, we’re here to answer that question.

What are free radicals?

Modern and urban settings push our bodies to do more than their biological thresholds, causing inflammation and stress that can damage our cells. The said inflammation and stress cause oxidation in the body that develop free radicals, which are essentially harmful molecules that feed on our cells, mutating and damaging them while they are feasting.

The process of oxidation in our bodies damages cell membranes and various cellular structures such as proteins, lipids and DNA. This happens when oxygen is metabolised, creating unstable free radicals, which steal electrons from other molecules, causing damage to cells and other cellular structures.

But, why are we fighting free radicals?

The oxidative stress caused by free radicals can damage the body’s cells, leading to a range of diseases. This also leads to signs of ageing on the skin like wrinkles and fine lines. Moreover, the role of oxidative stress has been postulated in many conditions such as cancers, heart ailments, arthritis and adult respiratory diseases.

Free radical damage to the cells leads to the pathological changes associated with ageing. The major mechanism of ageing attributes to DNA or the accumulation of cellular and functional damage as free radicals can damage DNA’s instructional code, causing our new cells to grow incorrectly, leading to ageing.

free radicals
Free radicals might be the reason behind the early signs of ageing. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

As per Rice University, on the formation of free radicals, a chain reaction can occur wherein the first free radical pulls an electron from a molecule, which destabilizes the molecule and turns it into a free radical. This newly-turned new molecule takes an electron from yet another molecule, thus making a new free radical. This domino effect can eventually disrupt and damage the whole cell. This chain reaction may change the structure of a lipid, block arteries and lead to mutations that grow tumours or cause cascading damage that may change the DNA code.

So, how do we fight them?

You can’t exactly get rid of free radicals but you can slow down their activity with the help of antioxidants.

Antioxidants can help us ward off ailments caused by free radicals as they work to protect the cells from the damage caused by the oxidation process. Antioxidants can be found in many food items; and as per a publication by Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health, epidemiological prospective studies show that a high intake of antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, and legumes is associated with a lower risk of chronic oxidative stress-related diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Chomp on antioxidant-rich foods to slow down free radicals! Image courtesy: Shutterstock

That said, you also need to be cautious of catalysts that accelerate oxidation, like stress, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, overexposure to sunlight, and pollution.

So, be aware of your lifestyle and make changes that will help you avoid an acceleration in the actions of free radicals.

Grace Bains Grace Bains

Grace is someone who likes writing enough to make a living out of it. When she isn’t writing, you will find her having chai and reading a book.