The Definition of Free Radicals

This is Part 2 in a 5 part series

Here is the simplest definition of free radicals...

Free radicals are things, or molecules, which has an extra electron all by itself.

Okay, that was a cruel joke on my part. But let’s break out the magnifying glass and go over an easier version of the definition of free radicals.

In the field of chemistry there are tons of free radicals and free radical types. But since we only care about what goes on in the human body the most important types of free radicals are on the ones involving oxygen.

It makes sense to be mostly concerned with oxygen free radicals because oxygen is what gives human life (it’s in our water, air we breathe, food, blood, etc).

So the definition of free radicals, regarding the human body, are unstable oxygen molecules that can do damage to your cells, organs and body as a whole.

And it’s not as if free radicals mean to cause harm. They are basically unstable molecules looking to be stable again. If that’s the case, then why and how do free radicals exist?

There are numerous causes for free radicals to exist, both ones we can control and ones we cannot.

The ones we cannot control are pretty interesting. In short, the uncontrollable causes of free radical existence are the result of being alive.

Yes, you read that correctly.

If you are a living person your body will naturally produce free radicals. And there are 2 examples to remember...

One is when we metabolize, or break down, food. Our bodies are basically breaking down the food we eat into usable energy and a side effect from this are the formation of free radicals.

Another internal, uncontrolled source of free radical existence is caused by the immune system. Yes, your immune system will create free radicals in order to fight off bacteria and harmful disease.

Fortunately our bodies have natural antioxidants which will neutralize these free radicals. The problem occurs when your body produces more free radicals than your body can handle. And unfortunately we don’t even realize how much stress we put our bodies through on a daily basis, let alone over the course of years and years.

Now that we’ve gone over that the definition of free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules, it’s important to go over the different free radical types.

The most common, and studied, free radicals containing oxygen are called Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS, for short).

Below is a list of the different free radical types we commonly deal with. Instead of going through a painful biochemistry lesson here, click on each free radical type below if you want to get an idea of what they look like and some basic information. A separate window will open up for you.

How do we fight off all these free radicals?

Just as there are different types of free radical, there is an antioxidant on our side. In Part 4 we cover a number of examples of how some antioxidants will target and neutralize a specific free radical.

But don't get too bogged down in the details. Research is constantly making new discoveries on antioxidant rich foods.

Your best bet is to get as many different types of antioxidant rich foods in your diet (fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc) and by taking a multi-vitamin that has Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E and selenium included.

Other Related Articles:

Part 3 - Causes of Free Radicals

Part 4 - How Free Radicals Were Discovered (and The Different Types of Antioxidants To Fight Them)

Part 5 - Best Sources To Find Antioxidants to Fight Off Free Radicals

Back to Part 1 

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