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Free Radicals: How to Fight This Invisible Threat to Your Health

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What happens when free radicals form in the body? While you’ll always have some free radicals moving throughout your body, an overabundance can lead to oxidative stress, which is linked to the onset of serious chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and more. 

How can you defend against this invisible threat? The answer is simple: by boosting your antioxidant intake. Antioxidants like Vitamin E neutralize free radicals, preventing them from doing significant damage to the body. Read on to learn more about the threat of free radicals and how Vitamin E can help.

What are reactive oxygen species?

A specific type of free radical, called reactive oxygen species (ROS), can have devastating effects on your health. As a free radical, they contribute to oxidative stress which can lead to cell damage and even cell death. 

Reactive oxygen species are also known as oxygen radicals. At the most basic level, they’re unstable molecules that contain oxygen. As they interact with cells throughout the body, the oxygen causes reactions with other molecules, causing damage to DNA, RNA and proteins. 

If your body starts producing more reactive oxygen species than your antioxidant defences can handle, you could be at risk for developing serious diseases. 

Free radicals cause oxidative stress and cell damage

Free radicals like ROS directly contribute to the development of oxidative stress, leading to extensive cellular damage and cellular death. All free radicals are searching for cells to bond to, and this is an entirely normal process: your body naturally produces free radicals in response to diet, exercise and even the environment in which you live. 

Problems occur when free radicals outnumber antioxidant defences, leading to oxidative stress that can cause wide-ranging damage, affecting your skin, vision, cardiovascular health and may even contribute to the onset of serious diseases.

Studies have shown that an imbalance of free radicals like ROS and antioxidants can lead to cancer, pulmonary hypertension, retinopathy and asthma. How your body reacts to ROS depends on a combination of specific molecular interactions and their location in the body. Regardless of where the damage occurs, the effects on your overall health can be significant. 

Antioxidants combat free radicals 

Antioxidants defend against free radicals as they move throughout your body. When antioxidants detect the presence of free radicals, they neutralize them by giving up some of their own electrons. This important sacrifice helps break the chain reaction that can result in cellular death. 

It’s important to strengthen your body’s antioxidant defences to consistently keep free radicals at bay and to prevent oxidative stress from occurring. Luckily, there are some simple ways to boost your antioxidant levels and stop free radicals in their tracks.

How to increase your antioxidant reserves

Increasing your antioxidant levels is the most effective way to fight back against oxidative stress. It all comes down to diet, and making sure you get enough Vitamin E is essential. 

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that’s stored in the body and released when the presence of free radicals is detected. Surprisingly, most adults don’t get their recommended daily Vitamin E intake (15mg for healthy adults), leaving them susceptible to free radicals and oxidative stress.

If you’re looking to boost your antioxidant defences and include more Vitamin E in your diet, there are several whole foods that are rich in this important nutrient. Include these foods in your diet to increase your Vitamin E intake:

  • Leafy, green vegetables like Swiss chard, turnip greens and beet greens increase your Vitamin E intake without adding calories to your diet.
  • Nuts, including almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts are an excellent Vitamin E-rich snack.
  • Pressed oils like sunflower, safflower, hazelnut and almond oil are a great substitute to cooking oil, providing up to half the recommended daily intake in a single serving.

Keep in mind that many Vitamin E-rich foods are also high in fat. For many people, taking a Vitamin E supplement can be just as effective at improving your antioxidant defences, without the added fat. Of course, seek a doctor’s approval before taking any supplements and always choose all-natural supplements for best results.

Be mindful of oxidative damage

Oxidative damage has a significant impact on so many of the body’s essential functions. Keeping your antioxidant levels high can prevent damage to your immune system, vision, skin health and more, and can even prevent the onset of serious chronic diseases. By being mindful of your antioxidant intake, you’ll fight back against free radicals and preserve your overall health.

Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She is interested in mental health and well-being.

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