Free Radicals and Diseases

Free Radicals and Diseases

The last century has seen an increase in life expectancy, with the development of antibiotics, vaccines, safer water and better sanitation, which have led to the defeat of most infectious diseases. The average human lifespan has been prolonged by more than 50%, and acute diseases are not the cause of death anymore. Today, deaths come from chronic ailments, degenerative diseases, metastatic cancer, immune deficiencies and other diseases that prolong disability, immobility and dependency. Dying is increasingly becoming a long, painful and expensive experience.

Despite medical progress in the past few decades, 25% of life expectancy after sixty five is spent with some disability, and the last few years of life are accompanied by a further increase in sickness and incapacity. The question then arises, - what causes aging plus the increase in disability and disease as we get older. Research reveals that the “Free Radical Theory Of Aging,” has best stood the test of time, and this was first proposed by Professor Denham Harman in 1954. He postulated that aging results from an accumulation of changes by reactions in the body, that are initiated by highly reactive molecules known as “free radicals.” The changes induced by free radicals are believed to be a major cause of aging, diseases and a pre-cursor to death.

Free Radicals & Diseases
Cells in the body use oxygen to produce energy, and in the process, oxygen sometimes reacts with compounds to produce highly unstable molecules known as free radicals. In addition to normal body processes, environmental factors such as radiation, pollution, tobacco smoke and other items, can act as oxidants and cause the formation of free radicals. The trouble begins when free radicals in the body exceeds its defenses against them, which is a condition known as oxidative stress.

A free radical is a molecule with one or more unpaired electrons, and an electron without a partner is unstable and highly reactive. To regain its stability, the free radical quickly finds a stable but vulnerable compound, from which to steal an electron. This results in the formerly stable molecule becoming a free radical itself, so it then steals an electron from some other nearby molecule, thus an electron snatching chain reaction gets under way. Unopposed free radicals are like sparks starting a ‘wildfire’ that leads to widespread damage by oxidative stress, and they commonly damage or disrupt unsaturated fatty acids in cell membranes, thus impairing the membranes ability to transport substances in and out of cells. Free radicals also cause damage to cell proteins and the DNA, thus altering the functions of all cells that inherit the damaged DNA.

It would be an exaggeration to say that connections between oxidative stress and diseases are endless; however current research has identified links with the development of over 2,000 diseases. Among them are age related blindness, arthritis, some cancers, diabetes, and kidney disease, plus Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s diseases. In diabetes, oxidative stress reduces cell membrane responsiveness to insulin plus it damages artery and kidney tissues, producing severe vascular and kidney disease. In turn, uncontrolled diabetes causes more oxidative stress, creating a cycle of worsening disease. Even the effects of physical aging are the results of years of free radical damage. Not all free radicals are bad; in fact their destructive properties are put to good use by some cells of the immune system. These cells use free radicals as ammunition in an ‘oxidative burst,’ that scavenges viruses & bacteria which might otherwise cause diseases.

Defense Against Free Radicals
The body’s two main systems of defense against damage from free radicals are its reserves of anti-oxidants and its enzyme systems, which oppose oxidation. These defense systems try to handle all free radicals, but they are not 100% effective, if insufficient radical fighting agents are present in the body. If the free radicals become excessive, or if the body’s repair systems cannot undo all of the damage, health problems may develop, so the unrepaired damage accumulates as people age.

Anti-Oxidant Vitamins
The body maintains pools of the anti-oxidant E & C vitamins, the vitamin A precursor, beta carotene., and these vitamins actively scavenge & quench free radicals, becoming oxidized (and inactive) themselves in the process. Once oxidized, they can to some extent be regenerated to become active anti-oxidants again, but some are also dismantled and discarded. Free radicals attack the body continuously, so to maintain defenses, a person’s supply of anti-oxidants must be replenished as rapidly as they are used; - If extra anti-oxidants are present in the tissues, then free radicals are less likely to damage the cells.

The best source for anti-oxidants is in food, especially fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes that also contain phyto-nutrients which have anti-oxidant properties. The question then arises; - do we need supplement this with anti-oxidant vitamins? There needs to be a balance between free radicals and anti-oxidants, so since we can measure free radicals, this balancing act can be done objectively. This measurement can be done by a urine test or blood test, and the results of either test can be available within about five minutes.


Management of Free Radicals
Preventing free radical damage is true preventative medicine, as most doctors are trained to detect diseases early, and treat to prevent further complications of that disease. Regarding diabetes, topping free radical damage can prevent a disease starting in the first place, and in turn will prevent disability in old age, and in fact will delay aging itself. I believe that free radical management is just like managing diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol, in that it is objective management by a trained individual, who understands that prevention is still better than cure.