Free Radicals: The Friendly Foes

In recent times, many unhealthy factors point towards ‘Free Radicals’ being the main culprit.  According to latest research, ‘Free radicals’ are the greatest enemies, posing serious threats to public health.  Now, what are these free radicals all about?  In this article, let us have better understanding of this much-discussed topic, taking a glimpse into their positive and negative aspects.

Free radicals

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There are various processes taking place within the cells and tissues, for effective functioning of the human body. However, during the process, there are millions of potentially deadly weapons existing within the cells and fluids of the bodies. These ‘so-called weapons’ are the free radicals that accelerate ageing and contribute towards various ailments, eventually leading to premature mortality.


What are free radicals?

In simple terms, a free radical is an atom or molecule with an unpaired electron.  Unpaired electrons constitute the unstable, highly reactive atoms, molecules or in certain case both.  Since electrons are in pairs, an unpaired electron  in a free radical causes it to meet with other molecules, stealing an electron from them, thus becoming another free radical due to the  changes brought about in the complete structure of the other molecules.  This results in a chain reaction where the structures of millions of molecules change, creating havoc with the DNA protein molecules, altering the lipids in cell membranes, affecting the blood vessels and the production of prostaglandins, thus disrupting normal physiological functions.


Causes of Overproduction of Free Radicals

Free radicals occur during normal metabolism of fat, carbohydrates and proteins in the body.


The primary source of free radicals is from the body, during the process of energy production within the cells. However, 98% of the oxygen we breathe is used for the production of energy within our cells.  The ensuing effect of this energy producing activity is that a very small amount of unused oxygen loses electrons creating free radicals.


Insufficient Blood Supply

Insufficient blood supply occurring during a heart attack or stroke is another cause leading to formation of free radicals.



High cholesterol is one of the causes for many health problems.  However, it is not cholesterol, which causes these, but the oxidization process that takes place within the cholesterol.  The highest concentration of cholesterol is in the brain and therefore low levels of cholesterol in the body produce problems in the brain.  Since every cell in the body contains cholesterol, lowering cholesterol much below the required levels may be compensated by the liver that needs to work extra hard leading to other problems.



Unsaturated fat is of two types.  They are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.  Polyunsaturated fat has multiple double bonds, which can become oxidized, and cause an increased production of free radicals, thus increasing risk of colon cancer.  Vegetable oils are polyunsaturated fatty acids, which become very easily oxidized.  Therefore, oxidation occurs in fried foods and meats.  Monounsaturated fat found in olive oil and mustard oil do not become oxidized as Olive oil increases high-density lipoproteins (HDL – good cholesterol) wherein vegetable oil decreases them.



Another important source, which creates overproduction of free radicals, is the presence of toxic heavy metals in the body, especially those caught up in the cellular tissues.  All transition metals, except copper, contain one electron in their outermost shell.  Therefore, they are considered a free radical.  Despite containing a full outer shell of two electrons, Copper loses its electron easily and therefore is included in the list of free radicals.  The following metals are, however, major free radicals creating agents in the body.  They are mercury, calcium, aluminium, lead, chlorine, iron and cadmium.




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Meat contains iron, which in excess again causes free radicals in the colon.  Hence, eating meat produces free radicals and carcinogens that cause cancer.


Food Preservatives

Foods containing a lot of preservatives and other additives are another cause for formation of free radicals.



Mental Stress 

Mental distress is directly linked to over production of free radicals.  Intense emotions such as anger, anxiety, tension, or stress creates cortisone and catecholamine, chemicals that react with different organs and cells, ultimately creating free radicals.  In the long run, these become harbinger of diseases even when there is a slight deficiency in the body.



Smoking makes a person susceptible to cancer of the colon and stroke.  Besides these, smoking creates all the lung damaging free radicals, causing bronchitis and emphysema. (Read more harmful effects of smoking)



One of the chief producers of free radicals is alcohol, damaging the liver causing cirrhosis.  Alcohol also causes myocardiopathy due to damages caused to the heart and the brain.  According to recent research, connection between various cells in the brain is largely affected as a reaction to alcohol.


Environmental Pollutants

The fumes and smoke emitted by the cars and other vehicles cause pollution, damaging the lungs.  Other factors include industrial pollutants, certain metals such as excess iron and household chemicals.


Chemotherapy/ Radiation

Chemotherapy and Radiation effects are toxic causing damage to normal cells by killing the tumour cells producing too many free radicals.  Prolonged exposure to x-rays and gamma rays from radioactive material too is another factor that contributes towards free radicals.



Overexposure to the harsh UV rays of the sun leads to premature aging of the skin.



Pesticides create free radicals and consuming food treated with pesticide may cause free radicals leading to various ailments.


Positive Aspects

Not all free radicals are entirely bad for health and they are indispensable for good health.  They are actually quite helpful in many of the body’s natural functions.

  • Free radicals, such as nitric oxide and superoxide, produced naturally within the body are utilized by the white blood cells to poison bacteria and virus-infected cells.
  • Free radicals are produced by the body to aid in the metabolic processes, such as digestion and the conversion of food into energy.
  • Free radicals control the flow of blood through the veins and arteries.
  • Free Radicals have the ability of keeping the mind sharp and focused thus preventing Alzheimer’s
  • Some free radicals have the ability to kill cancer cells.  In fact, the function of many cancer drugs is to increase the production of free radicals in the body for this very purpose.
  • Others are involved in producing vital hormones and activating enzymes that are needed for life.


Negative Impacts

Although Free Radicals are health friendly, when too many free radicals are produced within the body, they are dangerous and become foes.  Hence, a few factors, both external and internal overwhelm the body’s natural ability to neutralize free radicals, creating a risk of developing a host of degenerative diseases.

 Negative impacts of free radicals

Heart disease

Free radicals damage the low-density lipoproteins LDL (bad cholesterol).  The damaging of LDL becomes a crucial link between high blood cholesterol and the build-up of cholesterol plaques, called atherosclerosis, a major cause of hardening of the arteries leading to heart attack.  In addition, free radicals may be associated with low levels of high-density lipoproteins HDL cholesterol.



In very high volumes, free radicals can alter the genetic code material of cells.  Mutations that are formed by free radicals can lead to leukaemia and other types of cancer as well as a host of other diseases.



Cataracts are caused by multiple factors; however, the most common form of cataract is caused by free radical damage, caused by unstable atoms and molecules attacking the structural proteins, enzymes and cell membranes of the lens.



Excessive amounts of free radicals precipitate ageing, causing extensive damage to the protective cell membrane, leading to retention of fluids in the cells involved in the aging process.


Other Conditions

More than fifty conditions are also attributed to free radicals damage.  They are stroke, asthma, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel diseases such as diverticulitis, and ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcers, chronic congestive heart failure, Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s disease, sickle cell disease, rheumatoid arthritis, bleeding within a cavity of the brain, and high blood pressure inflammatory joint disease and degenerative eye disease.


Overcoming Free Radicals Damage


Under normal circumstances as part of evolution process and its dependency on oxygen, the body has no problem dealing with free radical production.  The body however, adapts and develops complex protective systems to deal with free radicals and protect itself from oxidative damage, by producing powerful free radical scavengers known as endogenous, antioxidative enzymes, such as superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione peroxidase, with whose help free radicals are converted into less reactive species. Once free radicals are neutralized by antioxidants, they become harmless, and are eventually eliminated from the body


Tips to Prevent Free Radicals Damage

By careful lifestyle choices, one can prevent free radical damage, thus slowing down the aging process, besides decreasing risk of various degenerative diseases, promoting high energy, vitality and a feeling of well-being.



Fresh Fruits

Fresh Fruits

Fresh Fruits (Image source:

An easily ingested diet rich in fresh fruits such as blueberries, pomegranates, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, cherries, goji berries, papayas, mangoes, watermelon, and olives, supply the required amount of antioxidants.


Fresh Vegetables

Taking plenty of fresh vegetables, such as romaine lettuce, celery, bell peppers, carrots, help neutralize free radicals in the body.


Vitamins and Minerals

Taking Vitamins rich in A, C, E, and beta-carotene, along with mineral supplements including small amounts of selenium, zinc and manganese, but not iron, unless they are necessary helps prevent excessive damage.




Since free radicals are produced by regular metabolic activities, overeating results in formation of excessive free radical in these cells entering the blood stream eventually causing damage to the tissues.



Recent Research indicates, that excessive accumulation of iron, common in meat eating populations, may be the most significant risk factor in the development of heart disease.  This is due to the “transition metal” being a generator of free radicals, a probable risk factor for cancer



Many of the chemicals that generate free radicals are found in municipal water supplies.  Therefore using a carbon-block filtering device for drinking water is recommended.


Avoid the following…
  • Hydrogenated oils, fried foods in restaurants, and highly refined foods that are typically rich in free radicals
  • Charcoal-grilled meats and animal products that have been cooked at high temperatures Stress
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Air pollution
  • Pesticides
  • Volatile fumes
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • Unnecessary x-rays or radiation
  • Polluted air
  • Unnecessary drugs, including prescription drugs


Above all, remember that a well-balanced body and mind helps promote a healthy nervous system, which is highly crucial to protect against the devastating effects of free radical damage.

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