The Internal Battle: Free Radicals versus Antioxidants

Written by: Helen



The Baddies: Free Radicals

To explain to you about antioxidants I must first tell you about free radicals.  Free radicals (as well as being a nineties music group) are molecules in your body that can do a lot of damage.  We all encounter free radicals.  They can be formed in simple acts such as breathing and exercising.  Usually our bodies are equipped to handle them, but there are times when they can do a lot of harm; this happens when free radical production is excessive or when we don’t have enough antioxidants.


 How Are Free Radicals Formed?

When I tell you how free radicals are formed you may even feel a little sorry for them (don’t believe me? Read on).  Free radicals are molecules that are missing a critical electron and so are wondering round the body (hence the word ‘free’) trying to find an electron to pair with their own like some sort of (very weird) love story.

However, if you are feeling sympathetic for free radicals and their lonely electron that’s about to stop because they are willing to go to some pretty extreme lengths to find an extra electron.  They are unstable molecules and tear off around the body killing or, even worse, injuring other cells in order to acquire it.  The reason injuring a cell is often worse than killing it is because the body can usually regenerate and create more cells when cells die.  However, when cells are injured DNA is damaged and this leads to disease.

If a free radical steals an electron from another molecule then that molecule becomes a free radical and searches for another molecule with an electron to take.  This creates a chain reaction.  This chain reaction ends when an electron is removed from a molecule that can’t function without it, or a cell is changed permanently.  Once a cell is mutated it grows abnormally and can reproduce more abnormal cells very quickly.

Free radicals cause various diseases, in particular cancer and heart disease, and play a role in the ageing process.


The Good Guys; Antioxidants

Antioxidants are our bodies heroes.  They defend it against damage from free radicals and they put a stop to the chain reaction before it causes us serious harm.  Antioxidants behave like peacekeepers, donating an electron to the free radical and therefore placating it.

This not only reduces our risk of degenerative diseases but also slows down the ageing process.  There are different types of antioxidants but the main types are vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene and selenium.  There are also flavonoids and polyphenols.




Our Role

The best thing we can do is eat plenty of vegetables and fruit.  It may seem that fruit and veg is the answer to every given question these days but it really is true.  Always aim for your 5-a-day and try to eat a rainbow of colours.

One study of 65,226 men and women found that the more fruit and vegetables people ate, the less likely they were to die at any given age.  In fact, the risk of death was reduced by 42% for seven or more portions a day (up to around ten a day).

Interestingly, the study also showed that vegetables had the most protective effect, salad was next and then fruit (it’s worth noting that fruit juice showed no benefit and canned fruit seemed to increase the risk!  This is probably because it’s stored in syrups).

The Mediterranean Diet, which is high in fruit and vegetables, has been shown to be one of the healthiest diets in the world.  You can read my article on it here.


Antioxidant Rich Foods

  • Berries
  • Herbs and Spices (In the antioxidant database dried and ground clove had the highest content.  Also peppermint, allspice, cinnamon, read my article on cinnamon here, and oregano ranked highly.)
  • Dark Chocolate (All I can say to this is YEY!)
  • Kale
  • Artichoke
  • Red cabbage
  • Broccoli (Read my article on broccoli here)
  • Green Tea
  • Tomatoes
  • Garlic (Read my article on garlic here)
  • Red Grapes
  • Spinach
  • Red Kidney Beans

So hopefully when you hear of free radicals and antioxidants you know more about what they do and how important it is to get plenty of antioxidants in our diets.  Let me know what you think below.  I’d love for you to subscribe and I’ll let you know when there’s a new post.  Thanks very much for reading 🙂



The Health Sciences Academy

Health Check Systems


    • Helen says:

      Good idea Andrea. Those are my favourites too (particularly the chocolate :-)). Thanks for commenting x

  1. Rachel says:

    Great article Helen, I never really understood what free radicals were and how antioxidants helped. You’ve explained it in a way that’s easy to understand and I’ve learnt a lot… Thank you!

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