What are free radicals?
By Gal Hermelin
We come across this term in the context of nutrition, sports, and a healthy lifestyle. Most of us are accustomed to hearing that free radicals are "bad" substances that harm the body and that their accumulation over time can lead to the development of various diseases including atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's and various types of cancer. And what about antioxidants? We hear about them quite a bit as "good" substances that fight the naturally occurring free radicals in our bodies. You might have encountered recommendations to consume them in nutrition and cosmetics to counteract the damage of free radicals.
So, what are free radicals? and what are antioxidants? We took a moment to try and explain what these "good" and "bad" substances are and how they operate in our body.
Free radical - an atom with an unpaired electron
And to explain the above sentence, let us first explain the structure of the atom: All the materials in the world are composed of atoms. For example - the material gold is made up of gold atoms, Iron is made up of iron atoms, and so on. There are also substances composed of several atoms that are linked to each other (molecules), such as water that is composed of an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. And for those who are interested - the periodic table contains all the atoms known to the science world.
A little about the atomic structure:
Each atom consists of a nucleus containing protons, with the number of protons present in the nucleus determining the type of material. For example, the hydrogen atom has one proton in the nucleus while the helium atom has two protons, lithium has three protons and so on. These protons have a positive charge and therefore the more protons are contained within the nucleus, the more positive the nucleus will be.
The nucleus is surrounded by electrons with a negative charge that balances the positive charge generated by the protons. These electrons circle the nucleus in fixed routes called orbitals. In stable substances, each orbital contains two electrons.
A free radical is an atom (or a molecule) whose one of its orbitals contains a single (unpaired) electron. In such a situation, the same atom becomes highly reactive and reacts with other necessary compounds in the body, disassembling them in order to "hijack" an electron from them. For this reason, free radicals create radical chain reactions, as taking an electron from another material creates an unpaired orbital elsewhere. This way, radicals react with other substances in the body and produce more and more free radicals.
what is the danger of free radicals?
When an electron is taken from an atom/molecule we say that the substance is "oxidized", while a substance receiving an electron is called "reduced". When radicals hijack electrons from other molecules or atoms, they oxidize (and thereby disintegrating) cellular structures that are necessary for the healthy function of the cell. In some cases, radicals can oxidize essential molecules leading to DNA damage, cancer and other disruptions in body function.
So, what is the role of antioxidants?
Antioxidants donate an electron (reduce. remember?) To the free radical in order to complete the number of electrons that surround it to an even number, preventing an unpaired electron state. A common feature for all antioxidants is their ability to be stable also in their oxidized state- thus, not becoming radicals themselves. This way they break the radical chain reaction propagated by the free radicals and are not acting "violent" with other substances in the body's cells.
Where are free radicals found in our bodies, and how are they created?
Most free radicals found in the human body are oxygen radicals and are naturally formed during cellular respiration. External factors such as radiation, smoking, air pollution, pesticides, detergents and others may enhance the formation of free radicals.
Also, there are naturally occurring enzymes with antioxidant activity in the body, whose job is to regulate free radicals and prevent them from harming vital cellular structures. In a state of imbalance, the free radicals will oxidize substances in the body and transform them also into free radicals, degenerate the brain cells, damage cell membranes and alter DNA structures. There is a consensus in the scientific and medical communities that a wide range of diseases is associated with these processes, including cancer.
How is Astaxanthin related to all of that?
Astaxanthin is the strongest natural antioxidant known to humans. Its activity is far more efficient than that of many other known antioxidants including vitamin C and vitamin E. Therefore, it does a better job of keeping the body safe from oxidative damage.
Our immune system also uses free radicals when fulfilling its function! The white blood cells (which belong to our immune system) use free radicals to destroy molecules for which no enzymes exist that can decompose them. Some white blood cells use free radicals to destroy bacteria that are harmful to the body.
People suffering from sensitivity to fava beans (G6PD) are deficient in the enzyme Glucose 6 phosphate dehydrogenase. This enzyme is found in all body cells and plays a role in protecting against oxidative damage. When this enzyme is deficient, there is a significant difficulty for red blood cells to deal with oxidative damage. Thus, they tend to disintegrate when encountered with a high concentration of free radicals. Fava Beans, whose digestion produces a lot of free radicals, are dangerous for patients suffering from G6PD since it could lead to the destruction of the red blood cells that are responsible for carrying oxygen to all parts of our body.