Free radicals: what are they?
Free radicals occur in the context of our metabolism: they are an intermediate product of the process. They are nothing more than special, highly reactive forms of oxygen: hydrogen peroxide, for example, superoxide or hyperoxide. Their distinctive feature is that they possess only one electron – but stable molecules require an electron pair. Free radicals are therefore unstable – they are constantly looking for a second electron to prevent them from decaying. They find this electron in other, stable molecules which often have important functions within individual body cells, as part of the DNA for example. If free radicals “steal” the electrons of essential cell molecules, they decay in turn, they oxidise. The cell is damaged in the long term.
Free radicals therefore destroy healthy cells of the body because that is the only way they can survive. As a result, more and more cell molecules become unstable. They begin to “pull away” electrons from the molecules of neighbouring cells. A chain reaction begins in which more and more body cells are irrevocably lost. That weakens the body and causes oxidative stress and, among other things, we speak of premature ageing of the skin. In order to keep the free radicals in check, the body uses antioxidants to combat them. They can be found, for example, in many healthy foods. If free radicals and antioxidants are in balance, the body remains healthy. But many factors can disrupt this balance.Free radicals therefore destroy healthy cells of the body because that is the only way they can survive. As a result, more and more cell molecules become unstable. They begin to “pull away” electrons from the molecules of neighbouring cells. A chain reaction begins in which more and more body cells are irrevocably lost. That weakens the body and causes oxidative stress and, among other things, we speak of premature ageing of the skin. In order to keep the free radicals in check, the body uses antioxidants to combat them. They can be found, for example, in many healthy foods. If free radicals and antioxidants are in balance, the body remains healthy. But many factors can disrupt this balance.
What stimulates free radicals?
Free radicals are present in every human body in certain numbers. They are continually created in the course of the metabolic process. However, some factors lead to an increase in the number of reactive oxygen molecules. The most well-known causes are UV radiation and smoking. Other causes of the creation of free radicals include:
- pollutants such as ozone, smog, pesticides, radioactive or ionizing radiation, lead, mercury
- an unbalanced diet that provides too few antioxidants
- taking medication
- infectious diseases and injuries
- mental or physical stress
- high-performance sport
- alcohol and drug consumption
What makes free radicals so harmful?
When, in 1956, the bio-gerontologist Denham Harman presented his theory that free radicals are responsible for the ageing process, his colleagues did not take him seriously at first. Now scientists accept that free radicals have a big influence on the body. Although the subject has not yet been thoroughly researched, it is clear that taking action against free radicals is worthwhile.
Rampant free radicals not only have a negative effect on the skin, they also damage the internal organs. But when free radicals attack intact skin cells, the effect is visible on the outside: it accelerates ageing of the skin. The skin wrinkles more quickly and becomes saggy. But the effects are not only of a cosmetic nature. Free radicals weaken the body and make it more susceptible to illnesses. If, for example, they destroy brain cells, neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease can become more likely. The risk of cancer increases for people who have too many free radicals at large in their body. Cardiovascular diseases and diabetes are also more prevalent in them.
But free radicals are not always harmful. They also have entirely positive potential. For example, they get rid of cells that are growing uncontrollably, which may be a preliminary stage of cancer. So the aim should not be to eliminate free radicals entirely from the body. Rather, it is important to establish a healthy balance between free radicals and antioxidants.
What helps to counteract free radicals?
Anyone who wants to remain healthy and keep their good looks as they age can counteract free radicals to some extent through a healthy diet containing antioxidants. These slow down the oxidation process by interrupting the fatal chain reaction. They are therefore referred to as ‘free radical catchers’, too. Antioxidants can be found in vitamins and minerals and as secondary plant substances. So eat as much fruit and as many vegetables as possible. Blueberries, apples, tomatoes, nuts, spinach, carrots, potatoes and coffee contain relatively large amounts of antioxidants – as does dark chocolate.
Certain substances are particularly effective: they are rich in antioxidants, but cannot be consumed through food in sufficient quantities alone. They include, for example, OPC, astaxanthin, selenium, L-cysteine and Coenzyme Q10. To be on the safe side, you can obtain a guaranteed supply of these active ingredients through nutritional supplements. We can also look after our skin with valuable creams and high-quality anti-ageing products that are rich in antioxidants. The more the circumstances of your life and your eating habits give rise to the risks mentioned above, the more worthwhile it is to establish a balance between free radicals and antioxidants by means of the latest nutritional supplements. In this way you can (not only) reduce the risk of premature ageing of the skin – you can create beauty from the inside out.