The human body is made up of many different types of cells. Cells are made up of many different types of molecules. Molecules are made up of different types of atoms. Atoms are orbited by tiny particles called electrons that are negatively charged. The number of electrons in the outermost ring of the atom determines the nature of the atom. If the outer ring is full, then the atom is stable. If it’s not full, it’s reactive. The reactive atoms bond with other reactive atoms and share their electrons in order to fill their outer rings and form a stable molecule. Remember, a molecule is a collection of atoms.
Sodium and Chlorine, on their own are both highly reactive atoms, but when they bond they form Sodium Chloride – salt – a stable molecule.
Free radicals are atoms or molecules that are missing at least one electron from their outer ring, which makes them unstable. They instinctively look to become stable by finding electrons to fill their outer ring. They do this by attacking the nearest molecule and stealing an electron. The attacked molecule then becomes a free radical itself and repeats the process by stealing an electron from the next stable molecule, which then in turn becomes a free radical. Similar to a zombie apocalypse, this chain reaction ends up damaging, mutating or destroying the cell. If free radicals simply killed a cell, it would be okay because the body could just make another one. The problem is that when the free radical damages or changes the cell’s DNA, this is the seed of cancer, aging and many other diseases.
Free radicals are continuously formed in our body as normal by-product of metabolism. Sometimes these free radicals are needed in the immune system to fight against intruders such as bacteria and viruses, but mostly free radicals can do a lot of damage. Carcinogens are loaded with free radicals and it’s these free radicals that make carcinogens so bad for our bodies. Because carcinogens are full of free radicals, we know they come from the same sources – pollution, radiation, chemicals, cigarette smoke, herbicides and so on.
Here’s the good news, the body can normally handle free radicals with it’s free radical defence system. They are kept under control by things called antioxidants, which the body produces naturally and gets from food. But if there are too many free radicals being produced and not enough antioxidants to neutralise them, this can lead to oxidative stress and a load of other problems.