Table of Contents
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 freaking armadillos 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 implausible weirdness and wonder.
What we’re talking about here are molecular free radicals. Which doesn’t help, I know. We've all heard the term free radical, but there are questions. What's it mean? Why is a free radical such a bad thing? What exactly do free radicals do to us? And, like, will there be a test?
We may 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.
Free Radicals: Terrorizing Your Helpless Cells
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. Still more questions, right? Don’t the zombies have their own brains? And where is the evidence that eating a brain makes you smarter? I mean, when was the last time you looked into a zombie’s eyes? Did you see any indication of a high-functioning problem-solver in that vacant expression? Zombies need all the brains they can get their rude, clawing hands on.
Boom. We’ve just explained free radicals. Sort of.
Free Radicals and Atoms and Stuff
We all remember that an atom is like a little planetary system; the nucleus is in the middle, electrons orbiting like lil' planets. The outermost orbit of the electrons circling an atom is called the valence shell of an atom.
The valence shell is where all the action is. Arguably, the only thing atoms are for is bonding — making up, through chemical bonds, the stuff of our reality (as it’s popularly known).
Free Radicals and their Nasty Little Shell Game
Electrons are fussy. Please don't tell them I said so. There is a funky rule of physics called the Pauli Exclusion Principle. Developed by somber-faced physicist Wolfgang Pauli, this principle says that each orbiting electron needs to be paired with another electron in the valence, so their spins counteract each other (don’t ask).
But what happens if a single electron escapes the valence shell to go solo? Is that big a deal? And does the atom even “know” it’s missing an electron? Ah...you’re getting warmer.
A free radical is an incomplete molecule—a mindless, staring, 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 classic movie-monster, the free radical molecule seeks completion—if I may give my sentimental spin to Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece Frankenstein.
In this case, the molecule is missing an electron. A limping, monstrous molecule that attacks its former colleagues and rips off their electrons? We're talking about a free radical. The rampaging damage they do as they tear up the countryside looking for that missing electron? It is not trivial.
Balance Can Be a B***h. But Nature Insists on It.
Mother Nature wants balance, and this is an understatement. In fact, Mother Nature mechanistically insists on balance, and will go to any length to maintain it. Nature is a fiend for balance and symmetry.
Note, for instance, that deadly gamma radiation is simply an atom discharging some extra energy in order to stabilize itself. There is an insane amount of hidden power in the natural world, much of it bottled up at the atomic scale. So when Mom Nature says “...strap yourselves 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 stability-seeking 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. What does this free radical molecular jerk do next?
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, systemwide havoc. The “zombies making other zombies” analogy is fitting.
So the free radicals jump all over healthy cells with their electron-deficient arms swinging, their toxic outer valence 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 health issue to be reckoned with.
“Electrons Here! Come and Get Your Electrons!”
Antioxidants. What the blank are they? They’re protective molecules produced in part by the beleaguered cells themselves. Antioxidants also exist abundantly in plants as phytochemicals, where they successfully battle natural environmental stresses that might otherwise kill the plant.
When a cell is besieged by electron zombies (you know what I mean), antioxidants swarm in like brave and determined aid workers to 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 healthy cell.
It's as if a kindly stranger interrupted a violent mugging to offer the attacker her own wallet in exchange for the victim being left alone. That's an anti-oxidant. Strange and fantastical? You betcha.
Sometimes, though, your body's antioxidant supply is insufficient in number to do effective battle with the attacking free radicals. Why? Because the stuff we do and the stuff we eat can actually 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 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 and toga model. 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; it's always possible to eat your way to cellular rescue.
Anti-Oxidants and Commendable Comestibles
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. When we pay attention.
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 antioxidant truce-makers, handing out electrons to free radicals and keeping the cellular peace.
• Goji berries
• 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 from all sides and survival, let alone victory, seems impossible.
"Dude; have a blueberry."