Have you heard about free radicals? You may have heard they can damage our cells and cause ageing and disease. But did you know that free radicals also help the body? We explain what free radicals are and how we can prevent them from causing damage.

What are free radicals?
Free radicals are unstable, highly reactive molecules. They have an unpaired electron which they can either give away or join with an electron from another molecule to create a new electron pair. In the search to find another electron to create a pair, free radicals can damage cells, proteins and DNA.

Essential processes in the body, such as respiration, create free radicals as a by-product. Free radicals can also come from external sources such as pollutants in the air, cigarette smoke and chemicals in the foods we consume.

Are free radicals bad for us?
They can damage cells, proteins and DNA. This damage to DNA is believed to contribute to ageing.

However, free radicals are vital to the body. They are required for the body to perform essential chemical processes and they protect us against foreign cells.

Free radicals are considered harmful when they cause oxidative stress. This is when there is an excess of free radicals in the body and they cause too much damage to the cells. Studies have linked oxidative stress to diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

How can we prevent free radical damage?
Antioxidants can counteract the negative effects of free radicals. They can give away an electron and still remain stable, which stops free radicals from damaging other cells. A lack of antioxidants in our bodies can lead to oxidative stress.

To increase your levels of antioxidants, you can eat fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants such as berries, tomatoes, broccoli and spinach. You can also drink green tea and use spices such as turmeric and cinnamon in your cooking as they’re also high in antioxidants.

Doing regular exercise has been shown to enhance antioxidant levels and decrease oxidative stress in the body.

Making an effort to reduce pollution and your exposure to chemicals can reduce free radical levels in your body. Some examples include carpooling or using public transport, choosing to buy environmentally friendly and organic products, not using pesticides in your garden and reducing consumption of processed foods.

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