Over the past 20 years the words free-radicals, anti-oxidants and phyto-chemicals have become common terms used by health promoters. The basic understanding is that when your body has more free-radica...
Over the past 20 years the words free-radicals, anti-oxidants and phyto-chemicals have become common terms used by health promoters. The basic understanding is that when your body has more free-radicals your health declines; when you have more anti-oxidants and phyto-chemicals your health improves. Why?
The body uses oxygen for metabolic reactions. When oxygen reacts with other body compounds in these reactions, it often creates free-radicals as a byproduct -a highly unstable molecule. In addition, other stressors can produce free-radicals, like exposure to cigarette smoke, radiation, a high fat diet and pollution.
Why be concerned about freeradicals? What makes them bad?
Because a free-radical molecule has at least one unpaired electron, it travels through the body looking for an electron to steal from another molecule in order to balance its own electrical field. This instability makes a free-radical highly reactive.
This isn’t always bad. Our immune system uses the high-reactivity of free-radicals to create a burst of energy to destroy disease-causing bacteria and viruses.
Outside of that, the reactivity of free radicals can wreak havoc with our health.
When a free radical steals an electron from a stable molecule, that molecule becomes unstable and begins travelling around the body looking for another electron to steal from another molecule in order to balance itself electrically. Then, the molecule that is now missing an electron begins searching for another electron to steal, causing a chain reaction. This chain reaction changes the composition of healthy molecules throughout the body, leading to disease.
This is where anti-oxidants help out. The great thing about anti-oxidants is that when they donate one of their electrons to balance a free-radical, they, themselves, do not become free-radicals. They are stable with or without an unpaired electron. For example, when ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) gives up two hydrogen (and their electrons) to balance a free-radical, ascorbic acid simply becomes dehydroascorbic acid, which is also a stable molecule. So, the chain reaction ends.
This is important because freeradicals can cause extensive damage. They attack and damage the fatty acids in fatty proteins, and in cell-membranes. As a result, substances can’t travel freely in and out of our cells, so our body has difficulty getting nutrients in and getting waste out of our cells. Freeradicals also damage cell proteins, so cells stop functioning as they should. Free-radicals also cause DNA to mutate, so when cells reproduce to create new cells the new cells are flawed and don’t work like the original cell.
Fortunately, our body has some built-in defenses for controlling free-radicals. Enzymes disarm the most harmful ones. To keep the enzymes effective the following minerals are essential: selenium, copper, manganese and zinc.
However, as we get older, these defense and repair systems become less effective. So, the damaged cells accumulate over time, leading particularly to cancer, arthritis, cataracts and heart disease.
Luckily, our body also creates some of its own anti-oxidants. However, most of our anti-oxidants come through the food we eat. Our body uses the Vitamin E and beta-carotene in our diet to protect its fats. Vitamin C protects the body’s fluids. Vitamin C is especially good at neutralizing free-radicals caused by air pollution and cigarette smoke. It also can make Vitamin E active again after it’s been oxidized.
Because cancers are often caused by damaged DNA, anti-oxidants may be the best prevention. Studies have certainly shown that people who eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruits rich in anti-oxidants have significantly lower rates of cancer.
Foods high in beta-carotene are particularly effective against lung, mouth cervical and breast cancers. Vitamin C seems to protect against mouth, larynx, and esophageal cancers. Vitamins E and C protect against heart disease.
Another tool to prevent disease is phytochemicals. These are not actually considered nutrients, but are compounds found in food. They create the colours and flavours in the foods we enjoy and are closely tied to the health benefits of those foods. It seems that the unique combination of anti-oxidants, fibre and phytochemicals of foods is what creates the health benefit package of that specific food. A diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains gives your body the best benefit because it contains a combination of all the different ingredients of many food options.
When deciding which fruits or vegetables to choose, generally speaking, the brighter/richer the colour of the fruit or vegetable, the greater the benefit for your health.
As the fall season approaches, it is certainly a great time to take advantage of all the excellent fresh fruit and vegetable choices available. Consider your lifestyle and then provide your body with everything it needs to keep your cells in tip-top shape.
The bright fruits and vegetables you pack in your brown-bag lunch today may help you avoid the doctor’s black bag in the future.
-Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant and she can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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