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Free radicals – also known simply as radicals – are singular atoms, or a group of atoms, with an odd number of electrons. As they have an uneven number of electrons, they are consequently unstable. To stabilise themselves, they constantly look to react with other molecules either by stealing an electron, donating an electron, or just merging with the molecule entirely.
In the human body this can often cause damage or even cell death, which affects major functions. Consequently the body has to defend itself against these molecules to limit potential damage, and it does so using antioxidants – which neutralise the free radicals – as well as the natural immune system. Typical antioxidants are vitamins, which often must be sourced through diet as the body can’t synthesise them; this is one of the major reasons why daily consumption of fruit and vegetables is so important.
Berries, grapes, kale, sweetcorn and beetroot are just a few of the antioxidant-rich foods we can eat. No human can avoid free radicals no matter what their lifestyle as they are a natural result of cell metabolism. Radicals, such as superoxide, are present within the body as they and their by-products play an important role in a number of biological processes we couldn’t live without.
There is a leading school of thought that posits free radicals are a key contributor to ageing. This theory states that damage caused by free radicals stealing electrons from other cells accumulates over time and reduces cell function, causing the overall organ to grow less efficient. Free radical damage has also been associated with more serious ailments like strokes, heart disease and cancer and there’s evidence that cognitive diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s may be exacerbated by radicals.