How old are free radicals?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

November 2008

A free radical is not some anarchist wandering through the countryside but it's probably more dangerous because it's a risk to every one of us. The term refers to a chemical molecule that attacks and damages other molecules within our bodies that we depend on for normal existence.

Sunlight, radiation, ozone, environmental pollutants, drugs (both the prescription and the illicit kind), tobacco smoke and even the body's own infection-fighting mechanisms can lead to the formation of free radicals. These chemicals have a very short life but we are exposed to millions of them every day. They damage DNA, cause cells to become cancerous, contribute to Alzheimer's disease and accelerate the aging process.

The first life forms that appeared on earth had to struggle with free radicals so nature very early devised ways to combat them. The answer was antioxidants, beneficial chemicals that plants, which appeared on earth before animal species, developed as means of self-protection. Antioxidants interact with free radicals and inactivate them. Animals use the antioxidants in the plants that they eat.

Vitamins C and E are both antioxidants that almost everyone has heard or read about but there are literally thousands of others in the food that we should be eating: colorful fruits, berries and vegetables of all kinds. You can add dark chocolate and red wine to that list, but in moderation.

Early humans didn't have to deal with as many free radicals as we do in our polluted environment. Almost no one these days keeps up with the need for antioxidants. They are readily available in a multitude of plant foods but only about 20 percent of Americans eat the recommended number of 5 fruits and 4 vegetables daily.

Perhaps if everyone knew how vital antioxidants are to maintaining healthful vigor and avoiding several chronic diseases they would be more willing to toss broccoli, Brussels sprouts, apples and apricots into their shopping carts.

Population groups as disparate as Greeks, Okinawans and American Seventh Day Adventists share certain characteristics: longevity and relative freedom from heart disease and cancer. They all have a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables.

Scientists have identified more than 4,000 antioxidant nutrients so far but the actual number is likely to be many times higher. After all, nature has had millions of years to evolve complex life forms and all of them had to be protected from antioxidants in order to survive for hundreds of thousands of generations.

Can't we get our antioxidants at the health food store? The answer is that there is no substitute for natural sources of nutrients. Many studies clearly show a protective effect of a diet high in fruits and vegetables against heart disease and cancer but the results are less impressive with single antioxidants such as vitamins C or E. Supplements that contain these and other antioxidants within mixtures of natural products may eventually yield better results. Until that happens, fill your cart with fresh fruits and vegetables before you hit the cookie aisle. And don't forget the wine and chocolate.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.