As the number of degenerative diseases is on the rise so is the search for new cures. Unfortunately, we still haven’t discovered a miraculous antidote that would heal our dear ones ravished by cancer, heart attacks, or auto-immune disorders. However, through proper nutrition, stress management, and exercise, we can help prevent some of these debilitating conditions, and in some cases even begin to reverse the damage. Often a depleted immune system is primarily a result of years of free radical damage.
What are free radicals?
An atom is in a stable form when each electron on the outer shell has a complimentary counterpart spinning in the opposite direction. Beerman (2010) explains that a free radical is an atom that has lost at least one of its complimentary electrons from the outer shell. This loss causes the atom to become highly reactive. It will frantically seek to add back the missing electron(s) to its outer layer by taking it from the first balanced, stable electron it encounters. Dr Kate Shanahan of Deep Nutrition calls it “the Zombie effect”. When the atomic structures that make up cells steal electrons from each other, it has a damaging effect on the DNA of the cells. When these cells propagate themselves through mitosis they pass that damaged DNA on to their offspring and continue the process of cellular degeneration.
An electron is a negatively charged particle that usually occurs in pairs, forming a chemically stable arrangement. When an electron is unpaired, another atom or molecule can easily bond with it, causing a chemical reaction. Because they join so readily with other compounds, free radicals can effect dramatic changes in the body, causing a great deal of damage – damage referred to as oxidative stress.
Shari Lieberman, Page 32
What is Oxidative Stress?
Typically, the body can easily clear itself of free radicals. Oxidative stress occurs when the body is unable to neutralize or destroy the excess of free radicals. Oxidative stress has been linked to premature aging, depressed immune system, IBS, Parkinsons, Alzheimers, age spots, severe allergies, inflammation, osteoporosis, heart attacks, and cancer. Lieberman (2007) says that there is accumulating evidence that oxidative stress leads to over sixty degenerative diseases!
What Causes Free Radicals?
Free radicals are caused by oxidation. This occurs when we ingest trans-fats, rancid oils, processed foods, excess sugar, alcohol, other environmental toxins, and things like sleep deprivation, stress, inflammation. They are also created by the immune system when its fighting an infection in the body.
What are some of the major free radicals in the body?
The free radicals that cause the most health concerns are the ones derived from oxygen and are thus called Reactive Oxygen Species, or ROS:
- Hydrogen Peroxide – in large amounts can cause severe damage. It has been linked to degenerative diseases and cancers.
- Superoxide – has been linked to cell DNA damage
- Hydroxil Radicals – the most short lived yet the most damaging radicals within the body.
- Singlet Oxygen – not a free radical but it is a catalyst for free radical production
- Nitric Oxide – has been found to cause vascular disease
Is all oxidation in the body bad?
A certain oxidation process occurs naturally when we metabolize our food or breathe in air or fight infection. Some of the free radicals I have listed above can also support health and fight cancer and disease. Free radicals are used by our immune system to kill dangerous viruses and bacteria. But these free radicals have to be produced by the immune system not by external offenders like trans fats, alcohol smoking, processed foods, etc. However like everything in nature they have to be in balance. When the number of oxidized molecules are in excess we begin to see severe cell DNA damage. In order to keep your free radical count down, stay away from any offenders that might cause oxidation – there is plenty of naturally occurring oxidation happening in your body.
Antioxidants are our first line of defense against free radicals. They work to protect cells and molecules against oxidation. They are the EMT of your immune system! They faithfully hunt down free radicals and willingly give them one of their electrons. Once a free radical gains back the lost electron the “zombie” chain reaction stops. The antioxidant becomes a free radical, but remains non-reactive, meaning it does not hunt down other molecules to steal and electron from. The body can easily flush it or send another antioxidant to resuscitate it.
One study published in 1993 focused on Linxian, China which has one of the highest esophageal stomach cancer and a persistently low intake of micronutrients. In this study approximately thirty thousand adults who were given supplements of beta-carotene, vitamin E, and Selenium showed a 42 % reduction of esophageal cancer and reduced risk of death from cancer. Lieberman Shari and Nancy Brunning “The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book, Page 35
The body has two lines of antioxidant defense:
- Antioxidants protecting the outer layer of the cells, like vitamin E, considered the strongest antioxidant against lipid peroxidation, Beta Carotene, and Coenzyme CoQ 10.
- Antioxidants protecting the inner cell, water soluble antioxidants like Vitamin C, A, and the enzymes systems gluthatione, peroxidase, superoxide dismutase, and catalse. These enzymes all need mineral support like copper, zink, managanese, selenium to function properly.
Where can we get antioxidants?
Antioxidants are produced by the body and can also be extracted from foods like colorful fruits and vegetables, high quality meat, sprouted nuts, cold pressed oils, or a good antioxidant supplement blend.
Bruce Ames, a prominent researcher, has found that deficiencies in certain nutrients can damage DNA in a way that is very similar to that of exposure to radiation. Up to 20% of the U.S. population gets less than 50 % of the RDI for many of these nutrients. He feels this could help explain why the almost quarter of the population that eats the fewest fruits and vegetables have double the cancer rate compared to the quarter that eats the most fruits and vegetables. The Vitamin and Mineral Book, Page 25
Here are four ways to prevent oxidative stress:
1. Eat foods rich in antioxidants!!
Vitamin A, C, E, minerals Zinc and Selenium, and enzyme CoQ10 are among the main antioxidants.
- Vitamin A: fermented cod liver oil, beef and chicken liver, eggs and dairy products.
- Beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, is found in carrots, kale, spinach, dandelion greens, cantaloupe, etc.
- Vitamin C: bell peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts, black currants, colard greens, turnip greens, parsley, cabbage, cauliflower, orange pulp, asparagus, lima beans, gooseberries, okra, etc
- Vitamin E: is wheat germ oil, cold pressed olive oil, dark leafy greens, sprouted grains, walnuts and pecans.
- Zinc: oysters, liver, eggs, sprouted nuts, soaked legumes.
- Selenium and CoQ10: sea food, internal organs, and sprouted grains.
Supplement with a high quality antioxidant formula
Foods are wonderful sources of a whole spectrum of these micronutrients, but if you are struggling with degenerative diseases, cancer, allergies, or have a low immune system, you might consider supplementing with a reputable antioxidant blend or multivitamin. Read here more about why I recommend supplementing with a multvitamin.
Avoid processed foods, hydrogenated vegetable oils, smoking, alcohol
I am not saying you should NEVER eat processed foods, have a glass of wine or, eat at a restaurant that is using rancid vegetable oil for frying. We have to choose our battles, make compromises, and accept that we can’t always eat perfectly. But after a long night of beer and cigarettes, you might want to eat a rainbow of multicolored veggies and some braised beef or chicken liver for your next meal just to ensure you are giving your body a few more antioxidants to fight the cascade of free radicals you have just unleashed.
Lieberman S, and Brunning N. (2007) The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book (4th Ed.). New York, Penguin Groups
Shanahan, K & Shanahan L. (2009), Deep Nutrition (1st ed.). Lawai, Hi: Bix Box Books
McGuire M. & Beerman K. (2011), Nutritional Sciences ( 1st Ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning
Bartholomy, P. (2012) Antioxidants, Hawthorn University, Audio Lecture , retrieved from https://student.hawthornuniversity.org/Course_AudioLecture