Free Radicals and Antioxidants: What You Need to Know

We hear the term “free radical” almost on a daily basis in news reports and magazine articles. Given their potential to have a major impact on health, it’s important to have a firm grasp of what they are and how we can prevent the damage they can inflict on our bodies.

Free to be Radical
To sum it up, free radicals are aggressive, reactive substances (scavengers) that are naturally formed in our bodies when we breathe in oxygen or burn food for energy (1). Free radicals contribute to the aging process, which is natural. But excessive amounts can cause tissue damage and even lead to certain diseases. These molecules or atoms are deficient of an electron, rendering them unstable. What happens next? The electron imbalance causes the free radical to steal an electron from another healthy molecule. This creates an unhealthy chain reaction. The once-healthy molecule turns into another free radical, which also goes in search of an electron, and the cycle continues (1).

The effects of excessive free radical damage can be widespread; free radicals attack and oxidize the cell’s membranes (lipids and proteins). Free radicals also damage the mitochondria, the cell’s main energy source. And, the oxidation caused by these free radicals disbands key enzymes and hormones, hindering the bodies’ natural ability to grow, fix themselves and cope with the everyday stresses of life. Last, DNA may also be attacked by as many as 100,000 free radicals daily (1). Free radicals may play a role in cancer, heart disease, liver damage and other diseases, experts say.

Free Radical Fighters
One’s exposure to free radicals cannot be prevented, since their presence can’t be avoided. They are found everywhere; this includes in air and in water pollution, and the processed foods we eat. Free radicals can also appear after physical trauma or from the medication one takes (3). Yes, you read right. Medications have free radicals because of the way they are produced in the laboratory. But, you may be pleased to know that excessive free radical damage can be quelled by taking antioxidants (e.g., vitamins A, C and E, beta carotene, lutein, alpha-lipoic acid, selenium, carotenoids and coenzyme Q10), which are molecules that have a spare electron to neutralize free radicals.

Antioxidants are excellent for maintaining the function and structure of healthy cells. They also are vitamins and nutrients that protect our cells from the damage caused by free radicals. And, antioxidants are found in dietary supplements as well as many natural foods, creating a greater need to eat the unprocessed variety (3).

An Antioxidant Effect
Just how can antioxidants benefit your body? Antioxidants may offer numerous health benefits, and are believed to assist with preventing certain illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. They may also help those with cardiovascular disease, immune dysfunction, cognitive impairment, cataracts and macular degeneration. Studies have shown that antioxidants reduce signs of aging by minimizing wrinkles and preserving the skin’s texture. They may even protect the skin from sun damage and reduce one’s chances of sunburn.

Vitamins C and E are two of the most potent antioxidants because they prevent free radicals from oxidizing sensitive biological molecules. Take vitamin E, for example, which has some research backing for helping those who have Alzheimer’s disease. Mary Sano, Ph.D., of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, and her team discovered that 2,000 IU of vitamin E administered for two years to patients with severe cases of Alzheimer’s delayed the progression of the disease (5). Also, an analysis published in the journal Current Opinion in Lipidology showed that alpha-tocopherol was helpful for those who have heart disease.

Vitamin C is also well-known to support heart and immune health. In addition, some trials also have concluded that vitamin C may benefit those with cancer (though everyone’s cancer is different and this vitamin hasn’t been shown to eradicate the disease). The late Abram Hoffer, M.D., Ph.D. was one proponent of giving cancer patients large doses of intravenous vitamin C along with various vitamins and minerals. Nearly one-third of his patients who were deemed terminally ill from the disease lived more than 10 years. It should be noted that different types of cancer respond better than others to vitamin C. Particularly, women who have reproductive cancers (breast), respond to vitamin therapy easier than those with lung cancer (5). Shoppers should ask their physicians before altering their dietary regimen.

Vitamins C and E are just two of the many powerful antioxidants. Selenium also is said to be useful for immunity and heart health; vitamin A is needed for the production of epithelial cells in the body, which line the skin along with most tissues; and coenzyme Q10 supports heart health and healthy blood glucose levels (1). WF


  1. D. Klatz, R. Goldman, “Stopping The Clock,” Basic Health Publications, (North Bergen, 2002).
  2. ICMG,”What are free radicals?”, accessed Janurary 25, 2010.
  3. Free-Radicals are Attacking Your Body,, accessed January 19, 2010.
  4. J. Challem & L. Brown, User’s Guide To Vitamins & Minerals, (Basic Health Publications, North Bergen, 2002).
  5. “Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD (1917–2009), interview by Andrew W. Saul,” The Townsend Letter, Nov. 2009, accessed January 29, 2010.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, March 2010