If you’re one who regularly seeks out the latest and greatest in health, fitness and nutrition information, you’ve likely heard the phrase “free radicals” tossed around, oftentimes in conjunction with the term “antioxidants”. In fact, many health food manufacturers swear that their shakes, smoothies, vitamins, and other supplements will defend the body against these ‘boogeyman’ chemicals.
And, of course, this leads to billions and billions of dollars in sales to consumers seeking optimal wellness in a glass or bottle.
In spite of widespread use of the phrase, there are many people who haven’t a clue as to what free radicals actually means. So, before you pick up your next antioxidant-rich supplement at your local health food store, here’s some need to know information about free radicals, particularly as they relate to antioxidants.
What Exactly Are Free Radicals?
Free radicals are naturally occurring chemicals produced whenever the body metabolically converts macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein) to energy. This essentially means that free radicals can form during any and all normal bodily processes, even the sheer act of breathing.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Exposures to environmental toxins like tobacco smoke, ultraviolet rays, and air pollution can also cause free radicals to form.
Under normal circumstances, the body is able to counterbalance free radical formation through a combination of its own natural antioxidant defenses as well as antioxidants supplied by the diet. As such, production of these chemicals doesn’t typically lead to illness or health problems.
When Do Free Radicals Become a Problem?
Although free radical production is a normal and inevitable process, problems arise when excessive amounts start to buildup in the body. This holds true especially for oxygen-based free radicals (reactive oxygen species), as they are highly reactive and closely associated with damage to cells, tissues, and organs of the body.
Most, if not all, chronic (non-communicable) diseases are in some way or another linked to an increased presence of free radicals (oxidative stress), including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, degenerative diseases, and inflammatory disorders. Such diseases usually manifest themselves when the body’s antioxidant defense mechanisms are overwhelmed due to impairment or when there’s an insufficient amount of dietary antioxidants.
How Can Free Radicals Best Be Controlled?
Excessive free radical production is best controlled through a combination of physical activity and diet. Moderate aerobic exercise, resistance training, and other forms of physical activity have been shown to greatly enhance the body’s natural antioxidant defense system. This ensures internal balance between free radicals and antioxidants.
And then there are dietary antioxidants, which primarily exert their effects by scavenging free radicals in ways that hinder excess accumulation in the body.
Numerous vitamins (A, E, and C), minerals (copper, selenium, and zinc), and phytonutrient compounds (carotenoids, flavonoids, and polyphenols) possess powerful antioxidant properties. Such antioxidants can be found in a variety of different foods across all the major food groups.
The Net Net
Free radicals are a natural part of life. However, there’s nothing natural about the serious health problems they can cause when left unchecked. You can significantly lower your risk of developing free radical-related health problems and diseases by regularly engaging in physical activity and incorporating a diet that’s nutritionally balanced with foods from all the major food groups.
Despite worldwide marketing of free radical-fighting supplements, most people can naturally improve their body’s antioxidant capacity with such healthy lifestyle practices. Still, in addition to physical activity and exercise behaviors, it’s also important to make an all-out effort to reduce your exposure to tobacco smoke and other free radical-promoting environmental toxins whenever possible.