Definition of Free Radicals

By Adrian Lopresti

Most molecules are electrically neutral, meaning that the number of negative electrons in the molecule equals the number of positively charged protons.

However, a free radical is a molecule that has a 'free', unpaired electron and therefore is negatively charged. This free electron makes a free radical very active, leading it to try and take an electron from other nearby molecules.

By taking an electron from another molecule, it can lead to a chain reaction of free radical production. However, it may also share the electron with the nearby molecule, which means the free radical has oxidised the other molecule.

Definition of Free Radicals

The purpose of free radicals

Free radicals are normally present in the body in small numbers. Biochemical processes naturally lead to the formation of free radicals, and under normal circumstances the body can keep them in check. A definition of free radicals may indicate that they are bad to have in the body. However, free radicals are not all bad.

For example, free radicals produced by the immune system destroy viruses and bacteria. Other free radicals are involved in producing vital hormones and activating enzymes that are needed for life. Free radicals are also necessary to produce energy and various substances that the body requires. Problems occur when there is excessive free radical formation which can cause damage to cells and tissues.

This definition of free radicals explains that not all free radicals are bad but rather excessive production of free radicals is.



Excess free radicals are bad...

Despite free radicals being only short lived molecular intermediates, through their reaction with other molecules, they can give rise to many undesirable biological functions and products. Excess free radicals spin about in an endless ricochet producing a dangerous number of free radicals which can alter the way in which the cells code genetic material.

As a result of errors in protein synthesis, changes can occur in protein structure. The body's immune system may then see this altered protein as a foreign substance and try to destroy it. Free radicals can also destroy the protective cell membranes. Calcium levels in the body can also become disrupted. Unless excess free radicals are neutralised, distress, disease and accelerated ageing will occur.



Nutritional sources of free radicals

A definition of free radicals shows that they form from metabolic processes in the body and from environmental exposures. Nutritionally, free radicals can be obtained from the following foods and fats that are exposed to excessive heat, oxygen, and light:
  • Eggs

  • Dried egg products

  • Dried milk

  • Melted or crisped foods, e.g., pizza, nachos, enchiladas

  • Fried foods (especially using polyunsaturated oils)

  • Grilled, broiled, charcoaled or charbroiled meats, fish and poultry
  • Free radicals are not a new creation, however, modern dietary and lifestyle practices has seen an increase in free radical exposure and a reduction in defence mechanisms, namely antioxidant protection. This importance of knowing how do antioxidants work in our body to protect it from the ravages of free radicals is essential.



    The impact high levels of
    free radicals have on our bodies

    The levels of free radical damage in our society today has led to escalating degenerative diseases such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression and the like. Some modern lifestyle practices that lead to increasing free radical exposure include:
  • Escalating deficiency in modern refined food diets of essential nutrient (vitamin and mineral) factors required to metabolise fatty acids properly, and a lack of antioxidants that protect us from free radical chain reactions.


  • Widespread deficiency of good fatty acids, as well as an imbalance in the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.Omega-3 EFA consumption has decreased to one sixth the level found in our food supply in the 1850s. At the same time, consumption of omega-6 EFAs has doubled, drastically changing the ratio of omeg-6 to omega-3 EFAs in our food supply.


  • Increased exposure to synthetic and toxic substances - drugs, trans-fatty acids, pesticides, heavy metals, additives, etc. - in our foods, due to industrial practices that remove nutrients, alter natural molecules into unnatural (toxic) ones, add synthetic toxic molecules such as additives, preservatives, colours and flavours, and increase pollutants in our environment, as well as medical practices that invade our body with drugs and other toxic molecules out of line with our biology. The side effects of many prescription drugs, and the toxic effects of many pesticides and poisons can be explained by free radical chain reactions initiated by these substances.
  • Here is a great video that explains what free radicals are and the impact they have in our bodies:

    Hopefully this definition of free radicals will give you a better insight into what they do in the body and how you can combat the negative effects they have.

    If you would like to find out ways to reduce the damage free radicals have in your body, read this article about the antioxidant foods.

    Also, if you would like to get a tub of high-quality superfoods that is loaded with antioxidants to combat the free radicals in your body, please go to: BCN's SuperFood Blend.

    Total Body Psychology






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