Free radicals are highly unstable chemicals that attack, infiltrate, and injure vital cell structures. Free radicals function by stealing an electron from stable compounds in the body. Most stable chemical compounds in the body possess a pair of electrons. Sometimes, one member of the electron pair gets stripped away. The resulting compound (the one that is missing one electron) is called a free radical. In turn, these free radicals move around the body looking for another electron to steal, and so on, setting off a chain reaction.
A large percentage of free radicals are produced during the body’s normal metabolic processes—most notably breathing. Here’s how:
Ninety-eight percent of the oxygen we breathe is used by tiny powerhouses, called mitochondria, within our cells. Mitochondria convert sugar, fats and inorganic phosphate by combining with oxygen to form adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy we need to live. This energy-producing activity involves a series of intricate biochemical processes that depend on vast numbers (an estimated 500 to 10,000 sets) of oxidative enzymes. These biochemical processes depend on dozens of nutrient factors and co-factors.
During this metabolic process, a very small amount of leftover oxygen loses electrons, creating free radicals. These free radicals burn holes in our cellular membranes. Calcium penetrates our cells through these holes. This excess calcium results in cell death. Death of excess numbers of cells weakens tissues and organs. As this damage continues, our body becomes to deteriorate, becoming less able to fight cancer, infections, cardiovascular disease, and other bodily disorders.
We breathe huge amounts of oxygen every day.
Because our bodies take 630 quadrillion damaging oxygen hits of free radicals per day, each of our cells takes about 10,000 hits per day, and each DNA strand in the cell gets hit 5,000 times per day. This free radical bombardment causes a typical human cell to be vulnerable to the potential for chemical changes daily. Free radicals can even contribute to the development of genetic mutations in our cells.
In addition to the oxygen we breathe, the world around us leaves us open to constant free-radical damage. We live in a highly toxic age. Environmental pollution; radiation; cigarette smoke; and chemicals, herbicides, and pesticides in our food supply challenge our cellular health every day.
The key to protecting our bodies is to repair the damages caused by free radicals before it is too late, and to protect the body’s tissues and cells from the free radicals before they can cause mutations. Antioxidants may help in cellular protection and repair. Antioxidants deactivate potentially dangerous free radicals before they can damage a cell's machinery. Most antioxidants are phytochemicals, as they are derived from plants. Among the most effective antioxidants are vitamins A, C, and E. Of these antioxidants, Vitamin C is the most powerful.
Each cell produces its own antioxidants. But the ability to produce antioxidants decreases as we age. This is why we need to incorporate antioxidant-rich foods and supplements into our diet. There is nothing complicated or costly about this approach. Here’s one suggestion — every day, enjoy a cup of green tea, pomegranate juice, or red wine, as these beverages are rich in antioxidants.
Free radicals are cancer’s friend. One of the best things a woman can do to help prevent cancer, help slow its momentum, or prevent it from recurring is to help her cells prevent free-radical damage. If you never had cancer or you are a cancer survivor, make antioxidants a central feature of your diet.
On the other hand, if you currently are undergoing cancer treatment, check with your mainstream oncologists before taking antioxidants. The reason for this precaution is that antioxidants may interfere with the effectiveness of certain types of therapy for cancer.