Last Updated on 4 August 2021 by Ray Plumlee
We’ve all heard about the dangers of free radicals. A wide variety of skincare creams are sold on the premise that they can prevent free radicals from damaging our complexion, causing us to age more rapidly. But, if these villainous free radicals can do this to our outside, just what damage can they wreak on our inner-selves and cells?
Free radicals are the normal and natural result of certain biological processes. They are produced as a result of the oxidative process which takes place in our bodies. These free radicals are molecules with an incomplete electron shell. This incomplete shell means that they are far more reactive than those molecules which are complete. It is as if they roam through our bodies looking for ways to complete themselves, and they don’t care how they do it. If they can hijack material from other molecules they will do so, damaging them in the process. This can cause damage to our cells, the walls which surround them, and the proteins and other substances contained within them. The cancer problem arises when these free radicals interact with our DNA, the very building blocks of our being, causing irreparable damage. Free radicals, as I’ve said before, are a natural byproduct of certain biological functions, and, as such, are produced within our bodies at an alarming rate. But they also can be picked up from the environment. Exposure to ionizing radiation can cause free radicals in our bodies. This is the reason why exposure to radiation can cause cancer. But even more common exposures, such as to cigarette smoke and even exposure to a high oxygen atmosphere can be the culprit, producing more and more of the damaging little buggers to circulate around our bodies looking for cell on which to prey.
You may be wondering why the body produces these free radicals if they are so harmful. Well, the truth is, that we need them, too. Our immune cells use them to help us fight off infections. But our body also produces antioxidants to help keep these chemicals in check. The problem arises when the proportion of free radicals to antioxidants gets out of hand. When the number of free radicals overwhelms the antioxidants in our body, we enter a state called oxidative stress. Excess exercise, overindulgence in antioxidant supplements such as vitamins C and E, high blood sugar, and even excessive exposure to the sun can be the cause of oxidative stress. This means that the all-important balance of valuable antioxidants to free radicals has been compromised, leaving our body’s defenses depleted. This can lead to dire consequences, as free radical damage has been linked to a number of diseases, including Alzheimer’s, atherosclerosis, diabetes, arthritis, and others. Studies have shown that cell damage caused by free radicals contributes to virtually all of the degenerative diseases of the human body. They also seem to be inextricably linked to the aging process itself. Our body produces its own anti-free radical substances, called endogenous antioxidants, but sometimes these are simply not enough to keep the damage at bay. Exogenous antioxidants are those found abundantly in fruits and vegetables, and, to a lesser degree, in nuts, grains, and even meats, poultry, and fish.
On the face of it, it would seem that common sense indicates that if these free radicals are so damaging, anything which we can find to combat them would be a good thing. If we can supplement our own body’s production of the damage fighting antioxidants, what could be better? Take a few supplements, load up on the fruits and veggies, and decrease our chances of developing cancer, or increase our chances of fighting it. Sounds about right, no? But this type of approach ignores the fact that free radicals are a necessary part of our disease-fighting arsenal. Recent studies have shown that increasing antioxidants to an overwhelming level may not be the answer at all. To say the results are mixed is not an overstatement.
Out of nine recent randomized studies conducted, many of them by the National Cancer Institute, there is not much cause for celebration. Most of them showed no evidence for any benefit in the use of antioxidant supplements. Additionally, a study by the United States Preventive Service Task Force showed no clear benefit to the use of these supplements in preventing or treating cancer. It must be noted, however, that these studies involved the use of antioxidant supplements, such as beta-carotene, and vitamins A, C, and E in pure form and not as constituent parts of a healthy diet. There may, indeed, be some interaction in the body when the antioxidants are consumed in their natural state, as part of a healthy diet, that cannot be duplicated by the use of supplements. That being said, it must also be pointed out that there have been several animal studies that point out the adverse effects of antioxidants on the development of cancer. Some studies have shown that counterintuitive though it may seem, antioxidants actually promote the growth of tumors, and hasten the metastatic process in some cases. It would seem that increasing the ratio of antioxidants to free radicals may have an adverse effect on our immune systems, limiting its ability to fight off the disease. Balance seems to be the answer. Because of this, if you are determined to use antioxidant supplements as a weapon in a fight against cancer, you are urged to consult your doctor on the advisability of this decision.
In conclusion, the use of antioxidant supplements, or the increased intake of antioxidant-rich food in your diet, maybe a double-edged sword. Used in moderation, to help maintain a healthy balance of free radicals to antioxidants, such a regimen is certainly beneficial. But if the balance is tipped, your immune system may pay the price. You have to make the decision for yourself. If you know your lifestyle can be a major contributor to an unhealthy buildup of free radicals, through such things as smoking, sun exposure, or high blood sugar, you may want to consider the use of supplements to even the score. But don’t go looking for the fountain of youth, or that elusive cancer cure, in a bottle of vitamin C. More than likely, you won’t find it.
Learn how antioxidants from whole foods can protect your body from free radicals and may help prevent heart disease, certain cancers, and arthritis.