What Are Free Radicals?

An Unstable Free Radical


Free radicals are atoms or molecules with unpaired electrons. These molecules are considered oxidized. Because in most molecules this state is very unstable, free radicals are highly reactive and therefore try to pair these unpaired electrons in whatever manner they can. This unstable state is often stabilized when the free radical grabs or shares an electron from or with another molecule (when the free radical is reduced).

Often a free radical is stabilized when it grabs a free electron from a nearby molecule that is stable, causing that molecule to now become a free radical and be unstable itself. This newly created free radical then needs to find a free electron to stabilize itself, and the cycle continues. In your body, this has many implications.

Free Radicals In Your Body And Free Radical Damage

You do have many normal processes within your body that rely on free radicals. These controlled free radicals are integral pieces of many functions within your body, including metabolism, cellular signaling, and immunity.

However, free radicals also cause problems. Because they are highly reactive they are difficult to control, and free radicals reacting in uncontrolled ways cause damage to the things around them. A free radical may steal an electron from a cellular membrane or a protein or a strand of DNA; often this damage is repaired, but sometimes it is not. Over time, this damage results in accumulated changes throughout your body and the less-effective functioning of proteins, tissues, membranes, organs, etc. Skin gets wrinkles and sun spots, memory looses its sharpness, eyesight diminishes, organs function sub-optimally, energy decreases: in effect, your body ages.

Free radical damage also leads to mutations in your DNA: damage to your DNA that isn’t repaired. These mutations are passed on when they are replicated, and further mutations are accumulated, replicated, and propagated over time. Much of the time these mutations may be harmless or may simply lead to decreased functioning, but sometimes this DNA damage may eventually lead to malignant cancer: uncontrolled cellular growth which can occur in any type of cell in your body.

Where Do Free Radicals Come From?

Free radicals are created in many ways. Just breathing (respiration) and your metabolism (the building up and breaking down of molecules in your body, and your storage and use of energy) create free radicals throughout their normal functioning. Free radicals are also created by the interaction of your body with the environment–toxins, pollution, chemicals, radiation, and sunlight all can create free radicals and harm your body.

How Can You Stop Free Radical Damage?

The good news is your body has innate systems that normally help neutralize these free radicals. Much of this maintenance is done by enzymes which are able to minimize the damage done by free radicals. But additionally, some vitamins and antioxidants from the foods you eat are also able to neutralize free radicals and minimize free-radical damage. That’s why it’s important to eat a healthy diet full of nutritious foods with plenty of vitamins and antioxidants: to give your body every possible chance to prevent the oxidative damage it is fighting every day.

More Info About Antioxidants

The next article discusses antioxidants and the roll they play in preventing free radical damage. Read about antioxidants here:

What Are Antioxidants And Why Do You Need Them?