The list of ordinary things that are actually extraordinary is a long one. In fact, it is an endless list. From light bulbs to water droplets to quasars to the pulsating heart of that housefly you just crushed with a rolled up New Yorker, this world is a bottomless well of unutterable weirdness and wonder.
In much the same way the word “light bulb” can lull you into a state of dulled complacency, so have we become accustomed to the term “free radicals”. For starters, a free radical is not a long-haired campus revolutionary arrested for occupying the History building and now sprung from the slammer by his Legal Aid attorney.
What we’re talking about here are molecular free radicals. Which doesn’t help, we know. We all know the term free radicals—but we don’t know what free radicals are, exactly why they’re bad for us, or even why they’re referred to as “free”. We do have a vague and generalized sense that, at the cellular level, there are gangs of tiny roving thugs and radicals who are misusing their freedom to harass our living cells. And that is an accurate intuition.
They must be stopped.
We’ve all seen one version or another of the movie where, through some experimental mishap, a miscreant escapes the laboratory and hideously roams the moonlit countryside in search of - something—victims, companionship, the perfect pastrami sandwich. The point is, the thing is roaming and searching. Or maybe we have a zombie, several zombies, or (alas) a zombie army; wandering over hill and dale in search of brains to eat. Don’t the zombies have their own brains? When was the last time you looked into a zombie’s eyes? Did you see any indications of a high-functioning problem solver in that vacant expression? Zombies need all the brains they can get their clawing hands on.
Boom. We’ve just explained free radicals. Sort of.
We all remember that an atom is like a little planetary system. The outermost orbit of the electrons circling an atom is called the valence shell orbit of an atom, and the valence shell is where all the reactive action is. Arguably, the only thing atoms are for is bonding - that is, making up the stuff of our reality (as it’s popularly known). Well, when two atoms bond together to do a little compounding (hydrogen and oxygen atoms linking to make water, for instance), the atoms work this magic out at the outer edges - the valence shell.
Now, a funky, intractable, and slightly magical scientific rule called the Pauli Exclusion Principle says each orbiting electron needs to be paired with another electron, so their spins counteract each other (don’t ask). But what happens if a single electron escapes the bonding-centric valence shell to go solo? Is it that big a deal? And does the atom even “know” it’s missing an electron? Ah...you’re getting warmer.
A free radical is a molecule—a mindlessly incomplete, possibly hunchbacked molecule—lurching wildly about the countryside of your body in desperate search of its lost electron. Yeah, it’s exactly as science-fictional as it sounds. Like the sad-but-frightening monster with the bolts in its neck and outstretched arms, the free radical molecule needs completion—if I may momentarily give my sentimental spin to Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece Frankenstein —because it is missing something crucial.
In this case, the molecule is missing an electron.
Balance Can Be a Gauntlet
Mother Nature wants balance, and this is an understatement. Mother Nature mechanistically insists on balance, and will go to great lengths to maintain it. Note, for instance, that deadly gamma radiation is simply an atom discharging some extra energy in order to stabilize itself. So when Mom Nature says, in effect “...strap yourself in kids, we’re going to get the house in order”, it can get a little scary. Nature seeks, and ultimately finds (or imposes, frankly), her own balance. Come heck or high water.
And so it is with the free radical molecule which, starved of a single electron, goes roaming around your interior like a staggering ghoul until it finds an unsuspecting ordinary molecule with a complete collection of electrons, and it steals an outer valence electron from that guy. Think “Zombie rudely taking victim’s brain” if that helps. This electron-stealing creates, of course, another free radical, because now the victim molecule is missing an electron. Again, the “zombies making zombies” analogy is deliciously apt.
So the free radicals wade into healthy cells with their electron-deficient arms swinging, their toxic outer shells reacting dramatically and tragically with your DNA, with polyunsaturated membrane lipids (cell walls), with your amino acids— damaging all the foundational stuff in your cells and leading to real heartbreak.The cellular damage done by wilding free radicals is no small thing. These electron-zombies are thought to be in part responsible for various cancers, for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, for heart disorders, inflammatory diseases, atherosclerosis, and even for aspects of the aging process itself. So as commonplace and blasé as the mention of free radicals has become, they are a serious nemesis to be reckoned with.
“Electrons Here! Come and Get Your Electrons!”
Antioxidants. What the blank are they? They’re protective molecules produced by the beleaguered cells themselves. When a cell is besieged by electron zombies (you know what I mean), Antioxidants fly out like brave and determined aid workers and distribute electrons to these marauding free radicals, filling the gaps on the attacker’s valence shell and pacifying the free radical before it can damage the cell. Strange and fantastical? You betcha.
Sometimes, though, the naturally occurring cellular antioxidant numbers are insufficient in number to do effective battle with the attacking free radicals. Why? Because the stuff we do and the stuff we eat can grow the free radical army within us. Tobacco smoke, fried foods, pesticides, booze (alcohol), air pollution, radiation, industrial solvents, these are things that engender free radicals in our systems. When our (often unconscious) poor choices swell the free radical army within us to the point our cells can’t fight back, this imbalance is called Oxidative Stress. This means your internal countryside is aswarm with more free radicals than your cells can capably battle.
Just when things seem most dire, though, we are reminded of something that goes way back to Hippocrates, the conventionally accepted Father of Medicine. Even as far back as 300 BC, H-man was all over the idea that food is medicine. And so it is with attacking free radicals; there is always a way to eat your way to cellular rescue.
There are many different edibles that can act as antioxidants when your poor cells need reinforcements—most famously vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, flavonoids, and so on. Foods that feature these elements flood your battlefield with antioxidants, to the great relief of your cells. There are, in fact, antioxidants in many of the things we eat.
It’s a longish list. In fact, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) began devising a list of all the foodstuffs we eat and their comparative antioxidant potencies (exhaustively explained and tabled here). Here is a shorter and more reasonable list of foods whose ingested molecules are notably potent truce-makers, handing out electrons to free radicals and keeping the cellular peace.
• Goji berries
• Elderberries (Elderberry Wine is a great old Elton John tune, as well…)
• Wild blueberries
• Dark chocolate
• Boiled Artichoke
• Kidney beans
So. Now you know. There is a battle being waged within us every nanosecond of our lives. It’s been estimated that our chromosomes—every single one of them—is attacked some 10,000 times a day by maddened free radicals looking for electrons. This is war! And you know what they say in the heat of battle when the enemy is approaching on all fronts and survival, let alone victory, seems impossible.
Have a blueberry.
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