Free Radicals Explained

The production of free radicals is one process within the body that you should be aware of. Yes, it’s a complex chemical process, but this simple explanation will help you to understand it.

The production of free radicals within the body is a process that is probably responsible for most of the degenerative diseases that bring about early death. Even so, there is some good news. There are ways to slow down or counteract free radical processes.

It’s quite amazing that one of the most important things we need to sustain our life is air. Yet, the air we breathe is also one of the things that has the potential to cause substantial damage to our livelihood.

It is not simply air, but it is that life-supporting component within the air that we breathe – oxygen!

How can something that is so important to life itself be so destructive? As an analogy, you can compare free radicals in the body to the rusting of metal (oxidation) and not without good cause.

How do Free Radicals Happen?

Oxygen in the air causes rusting and a similar process to free radicals in our body. Of course, we all need a plentiful supply of oxygen to survive. In fact, without it we would die within a few minutes!

Explaining free radicals as being similar to rust in metals is not too helpful. It fails to explain what is actually happening in (or to) our bodies. In any event, rusting of metals (iron) and the production of free radicals in our body, have different chemical processes.

The Technical Explanation of Free Radicals

Of course, there is a technical explanation of free radical production. We take in oxygen and ‘transform’ it into energy. The different types of cells use up that energy, whether they make up bones, blood, muscle, fat or brain tissue. Many strains of microscopic cells combine to make up everything that is part of the human body.

The cells constantly renew themselves and they need more energy to do so. The microscopic organisms convert oxygen into energy, within the cells, known as mitochondria. As an analogy, ‘mightochondria’ may be a better spelling for they are indeed providers of ‘might’ (or energy) for the cells.

Most of the time, all goes well and we end up with ‘energy’ in the form of ATP (Adenosine triphosphate). The conversion to ATP involves four chemical changes or stages. When successful, it reduces oxygen to water. The excess of which goes out of the body in a few different ways. We won’t dwell on this part of the process but you will understand if we call it… dumped waste!

A Non-technical Explanation of Free Radicals

For an easy visualization, think of the process as delivering a microscopic organism – or a body with four limbs. Two arms and two legs. It would be a happy little body that can feed the cell with much of the energy that it needs.

But, if the process of converting the oxygen goes slightly adrift, then the result would be a little body with only three limbs – or a free radical! Not entirely happy, and rather than put up with that state of affairs, it starts attaching itself to good cells in the nearby vicinity. In turn, it will rob those cells of their proper function.

Free radical production increases as a direct result of:

  • Impurities in the atmosphere in which we live.
  • Chemicals within our food and drinking water.
  • Other necessities for life (e.g. sunshine).

Free radicals are therefore largely responsible for many of the degenerative diseases that wrack our bodies. There are many causes but they can certainly inhibit that which most of us are hoping for… dying of old age.

Note: This is a basic explanation of how free radicals work. For all the expert Chemists out there, please show leniency to the analogy or any chemical inaccuracies.