How Free Radicals Affect Your Body


free radical free radical
Free radicals form because of many things in modern life, including UV light, pollution, smoking and even our diet. HowStuffWorks

The other day, I bought an expensive serum that promised to miraculously take years off my face by fighting free radicals. Was I entirely sure what these sinister-sounding enemies were and why I needed to invest in a product to fight them? No. Was I ready to fork over an absurd amount of cash to go to war with my fine lines? For sure.

But it did make me curious to learn more about the supposed culprits associated with my superficial concerns. What are free radicals anyway? I'd heard the term before (even outside the marketing for my new costly face lotion). Is my anti-aging cream the only way I need to protect myself or should I be more concerned about free radicals and far more serious health issues like cancer?

What Are Free Radicals?

"As a scientific term, free radicals are essentially unstable atoms," says Arizona-based doctor, Natasha Bhuyan, M.D. "In medicine, they cause cells to break down over time and are linked to aging."

A super simple chemistry review for you: Atoms from different elements are the building blocks that make up molecules like water (H2O), nitrogen (N2) and more. Electrons are the negatively charged particles of atoms, and they like to be in pairs.

When an electron loses its partner, it creates a free radical, which is usually unstable and highly reactive. Free radicals typically scavenge the body to seek out a replacement for their missing electron, and all that pillaging can result in damage to cells, proteins and DNA, and a free radical chain reaction as the destabilized cell components try to regain stability.

One well-known example of a free radical is hydroxyl radical (HO•). The molecule is one hydrogen atom short of being a water molecule, so it has one bond "dangling" from the oxygen (which is what that dot next to the O indicates). Two other examples of free radicals are the carbene molecule (:CH2), which has two dangling bonds; and the superoxide anion (•O−2), which is the oxygen molecule (O2) with one extra electron and one dangling bond.

Where Do Free Radicals Come From?

So how do free radicals form and why do they happen? "I'm digging deep into my chemistry courses for this one!" Bhuyan says. "Scientifically, free radicals are unpaired electrons that are seeking a mate to bond with. The theory behind free radicals is that they can lead to oxidative stress, which is the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants."

Another mini-science lesson for you: Antioxidants are natural or man-made substances that can help prevent or delay some types of cell damage. They're often found in fruits and vegetables (which is one major reason you're always being lectured to eat more of them).

A lot of the aspects of modern life — our diet, lifestyle, environmental factors like pollution, etc. — can cause oxidative stress, aka that imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals. Over time, oxidative stress weakens cells and tissues and can leave you more vulnerable to certain health issues, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, cancer, diabetes and more. And, as beauty marketers are keenly aware, oxidative stress can also speed up the aging process.

"Theoretically, oxidative stress can damage our cells, which leads to things like changes to the skin," Bhuyan says. "It has been linked to aging changes."

free radical free radical
When an electron loses its partner, it creates a free radical, which is usually unstable and highly reactive.
Wikimedia Commons

Can Free Radicals Be Stopped?

Now that you know the havoc free radicals can wreak on your health, you're probably wondering if there are any ways to prevent them from forming or at least to minimize their negative effects. I did, after all, spend half my paycheck on that serum in hopes of staving off their skin-related terror.

"There actually isn't much evidence-based medicine in this area," Bhuyan says. "There are a lot of theories floating around, but nothing that has been tested. Some people argue that eating foods rich in antioxidants can be beneficial, as the antioxidant would 'donate' an electron to the unstable free radicals. But, to be honest, there is no long-term research that shows any benefits for aging."

So while plenty of products and supplements tout claims about preventing or even reducing free radical damage and aging on the skin and throughout the body, the scientific evidence hasn't quite panned out to support that.

If you're coping with or at an increased risk for an illness that's linked to oxidative stress, you should work with your health care provider to come up with a treatment plan that works for you. And if you're trying to keep your youthful glow, you might want to shift your focus from battling free radicals to something much more straightforward. "The reality is, if you want to minimize wrinkles, the best thing you can do is wear sunscreen!" Bhuyan says.