Free radicals, what they do and how they protect

Free radicals are extremely aggressive, reactive particles that are largely responsible for the aging process. Most are oxygen compounds.

Old hands with age spots

How do free radicals develop?

They occur permanently in every body cell when energy is produced with the aid of oxygen. Carbon dioxide and free radicals are produced as waste products. External influences such as UV light, smoking, alcohol, ozone or air particulates, and activity from competitive sports, can also cause free radicals. Free radicals are characterized by the fact that they have lost an electron and now want to reoccupy the missing spot in their chemical structure. They snatch an electron from the next best cell at lightning speed and thus trigger a chain reaction. This is because the "stolen" cell, which has itself become a free radical as a result, in turn looks for an electron from another cell. This electron theft is called "oxidation." Something similar happens when metal rusts or fat turns rancid. Oxidation also present here.

Dangers and protection

Free radicals can damage the organism if they attack cell membranes, proteins or the genetic material of the cell, DNA. The affected cells are severely impaired in their function and die prematurely or can degenerate, causing cancer and a number of other diseases. This condition is called "oxidative stress." To prevent free radicals from causing damage, the body employs a protective system using radical scavengers or antioxidants. These render the the free radicals harmless to the human body. They primarily include the body's own enzymes, vitamins and phytonutrients. If more free radicals are formed than eliminated, the balance is disturbed and the free radicals can unleash their destructive effect unhindered.

Important radical scavengers and their sources

Antioxidants Food Product
Vitamin C Fruit, vegetables
Vitamin E Vegetable oils, nuts, seeds
Carotenoids (beta carotene, lutein, lycopene) Red fruit and vegetables
Bioflavonoids Fruit, green tea
Coenzyme Q10 Fish, nuts, wheatgerm
alpha lipoic acid (ALA) Meat, innards (offal)
Glutathione Fruits, vegetables, soy, wheat products
Selenium Meat, grains
Zinc Seafood, meat, fish

External signs

From a purely external point of view, it is almost impossible to detect exposure to free radicals. However one unmistakable sign is the appearance of "age spots" on the skin. These brown spots, which mainly appear on the backs of the hands, on the arms or on the face, are deposits of damaged fat and protein building blocks, the oxidative waste caused by free radicals, which is then deposited in the skin. In them you can read the sins of the youth and a life lived.

What can be done?

Fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and cold-pressed oils are rich in antioxidants. That is why you should eat them every day. Avoid prolonged sunbathing because UV light is one of the strongest producers of free radicals. You should not smoke anyway and only enjoy alcohol in moderation. If the ozone load is high in summer on hot summer days, you should avoid the outdoors that day as much as possible. If you live in the city on busy roads, it is probably impossible to escape fine particulates. However, you can compensate by getting out of the city and into nature as often as possible. At home, it is better to keep the windows closed when near areas of pollution. Those who have to live with some of these unavoidable environmental factors may also consider taking antioxidants as a dietary supplement.

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