Doctor Decoded: What Are Free Radicals?

Time for a quick chemistry lesson.

You’ve probably seen plenty of headlines and health tips recommending berries to protect you from “free radicals.” This term has reached buzzword status, often dropped in a sentence to signify something sinister, but with little explanation of what it is. 

So … what are free radicals?

Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms with an unpaired electron. To understand this, you’ll need a short chemistry lesson: Electrons like to run in pairs, and it makes them more stable. Thus, it’s less common to find a solo electron, and unpaired electrons usually just occur temporarily, during a chemical reaction.

Free radicals are formed naturally when cells metabolize oxygen, when your body digests food, or when you’re exposed to environmental things like pollution, cigarette smoke, or radiation. These are all chemical reactions that can result in unpaired electrons.

Free radicals in the body are highly reactive, and they can do damage to your cells and DNA. This may lead to gene mutations, which increase the risk for genetic disorders

Everyone has some amount of free radicals (and they have benefits in low amounts), but if free radicals accumulate, they may outnumber the antioxidants in the body, which are substances that help inhibit oxidation or remove oxidizing agents in the body. Since free radicals are a byproduct of oxidation, antioxidants help reduce the amount of free radicals.

An imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants results in oxidative stress, which is believed to be a risk factor in many common and chronic diseases that are linked to cell and DNA damage, including:

  • Arthritis

  • Cardiovascular diseases

  • Autoimmune diseases

  • And cancers.

As a result, antioxidants play an important role in managing the risk of diseases. Many fruits and veggies are rich in antioxidants, including vitamins A, C, and E. This might be *one* of the reasons—but not the only reason—that a diet rich in fruits and veggies tends to lower the risk of disease.

Want more tips to reduce your risk of disease?

Duration: 1:04. Last Updated On: March 13, 2020, 2:36 p.m.
Reviewed by: Preeti Parikh, MD . Review date: March 10, 2020
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