Free Radical Theory of Aging and Disease

My 13th book, Best Future You, will be released on Feb 1 – TOMORROW!

Until then, I’m keeping the price at $3.49 – less than the cost of a grande latte! (it’s also FREE if you’re a Kindle Unlimited member)…after that, the price goes up to $9.99 – so get it now!

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from the book and blogging frequently about the main concept in the book – which is the idea of harnessing your body’s internal cellular biochemistry to achieve true balance in body, mind, and spirit – and in doing so, help you to become your “Best Future You” in terms of how you look, how you feel, and how you perform on every level.

Chapter 1 – The Battle for Balance

The Free Radical Theory of Aging & Disease

For more than 50 years, scientists have known the aging process to be linked to the free radicals described above. These highly reactive oxygen molecules, referred to by scientists as “reactive oxygen species” (ROS) are produced during normal metabolism and can react with and cause damage to cellular structures in every tissue and throughout the entire body. Particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage are cell membranes, DNA (genetic material), and mitochondria (where cells generate energy) – and damage in these vital areas often means that cells cannot function properly.

It can be scary to think that our own body is producing these damaging molecules as a normal part of living and breathing – but it’s even scarier when you realize that ROS are all around us in the environment in the form of sunlight, car exhaust, air pollution, cigarette smoke, poor diet, and many other sources. Our bodies are constantly being bombarded by free radicals, and constantly under threat of cellular damage and dysfunction – unless we do something to protect ourselves.

Antioxidants are compounds that can react with and quench – or inactivate – a free radical so it cannot cause cellular damage. As such, antioxidants help to protect every cell in our body from damage by free radicals.

Too many free radicals – or too few antioxidants – can wreak havoc on cell membranes and DNA, leading to tissue damage and a wide range of chronic diseases including cancer, arthritis, and heart disease.

The free radical theory of aging (and disease promotion) holds that through a gradual accumulation of microscopic damage to our cell membranes, DNA, tissue structures and enzyme systems, we are predisposed to dysfunction and disease. In response to excessive free radical exposure, the body naturally increases its production of endogenous antioxidant enzymes (glutathione peroxidase, catalase, superoxide dismutase and others), but it has been theorized that our bodies are less able to activate these internal protective systems as we age. Thus, in order to promote optimal health and well-being, many of us probably need to augment our natural defenses by “manually activating” these natural pathways in order to help prevent excessive oxidative damage to muscles, mitochondria and other tissues.

If you’ve ever noticed an apple turning brown shortly after being cut open or an old car with rust spots all over it, you’ve actually seen the results of the natural process of oxidation. One simple definition of oxidation is that it describes what happens when oxygen combines with another substance. On a somewhat more technical level, oxidation refers to the “loss of at least one electron when two or more substances interact.” How are these electrons lost? They’re “stolen” by the highly reactive free radicals described above.

Free radicals are highly reactive and potentially damaging, because they have an “unpaired” electron that wants to “pair” with another electron. Unfortunately, free radicals often try to “take” that needed electron from proteins and lipids (fats) in the cells, creating microscopic damage to cellular structures and leading to tissue dysfunction. Perhaps even worse than the direct damage to DNA and cellular structures is that damage in one part of the cell can set off a chain reaction of damage that can be propagated from one part of the cell to another, just as a campfire spark jumps from tree to tree in a forest and leads to a wildfire.

Free radicals are not necessarily “bad”—a certain amount of cellular “signaling” by free radicals is actually needed for normal physiological functioning, including normal glucose transport, mitochondrial genesis, and muscle hypertrophy (growth). However, unchecked or excessive free-radical activity is what leads to cellular damage—oxidation or oxidative stress—and the cycle of inflammation and tissue dysfunction that follows.

Consuming antioxidant nutrients in the form of brightly colored fruits and vegetables has clearly been shown in research studies to be associated with reduced free radical damage and improved health. Unfortunately, the practice of “taking antioxidants,” in the form of high-dose vitamin supplements, is being linked by a growing number of scientific studies to more harm than good, which you’ll learn more about in Chapter 3.

Cells are typically able to protect themselves from free-radical damage through the internal (endogenous) antioxidant enzymes described above (superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase, catalase) as well as through antioxidant nutrients found in the diet (vitamins C and E, minerals selenium and zinc, flavonoids, and carotenoids—many of which can directly “quench” free radicals by donating their own electrons).

As you’ll learn in Chapter 4, our bodies possess their own built-in systems of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory defenses that naturally protect us from our stressful environment (collectively known as the cellular defense response, or CDR). However, when these internal systems are overwhelmed by free radicals and other sources of cellular stress, damage may occur to DNA, proteins, and lipids in cell membranes (generally referred to as “lipid peroxidation”). Excessive free-radical production can come from air pollution, cigarette smoke, intense exercise, and even immune-system activity (because immune cells release huge amounts of free radicals such as superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, and nitric oxide as part of their “respiratory burst” to kill pathogens and clear out damaged cell material).

The most common free radicals in the body include superoxide (O2-), hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), hydroxyl radical (OH-), nitric oxide (NO-), and peroxyl radical (NOO-). Superoxide, the most reactive of the free radicals, is formed in the mitochondria of the cell during the normal passage of molecular oxygen through the electron transport chain during creation of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) for cellular energy. Superoxide is inactivated by the action of the cellular antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase, resulting in hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). At this stage, hydrogen peroxide is still a free radical, but one with a lower potency. Hydrogen peroxide can be further converted into harmless water and oxygen by the activity of other cellular antioxidant enzymes; catalase and glutathione peroxidase.

Thanks for reading – next installment will be about, “What is Cellular Stress?

Shawn M Talbott, PhD, CNS, LDN, FACSM, FAIS, FACN
Nutritional Biochemist and Author


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The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance, and Reclaim Your Natural Energy
Killer at Large – Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat – an award-winning documentary film exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic
The Cortisol Connection – Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health (Hunter House)
The Cortisol Connection Diet – The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House)
Cortisol Control and the Beauty Connection – The All-Natural Inside-Out Approach to Reversing Wrinkles, Preventing Acne, And Improving Skin Tone (Hunter House)
Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living – Lasting Relief for Flexible Joints, Strong Bones and Ache-Free Muscles (Chronicle Publishers – Currant Books)
The Immune Miracle – The All-Natural Approach for Better Health, Increased Energy and Improved Mood (GLH Nutrition, 2012)
A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements – an Outstanding Academic Text of 2004 (Haworth Press)
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