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Many health and fitness supplements now boast that they help to reduce free radicals in the body in the fight against cancer and long term illness. But what are they and how does the body use antioxidants to fight them?

What are free radicals?

Free radicals are everywhere around us in the air as well as in our bodies. They are molecules that are uncharged but have not paired with another electron and as they try to find an active electron they cause damage to the surrounding molecules to find one. All very scientific, but put into simple terms they are looking for something to combine with to allow them to work and in trying to find that they often cause damage. However, they are often used in medicines to help fight diseases in the body and break down viruses. 

Free radicals have been known to contribute towards long term illnesses, heart attacks, stroke and age related illnesses.

To understand it better we need to look back at some basic chemistry. Our bodies are made up of lots of different cells that are composed of different molecules. Molecules are one or more atoms of one or more element (for example carbon dioxide is carbon and oxygen elements combined). An atom is made up of protons in the middle surrounded by electrons on the inner shell (a bit like the moon rotating around the earth) and an atom needs to have a stable amount of electrons on the outer shell for it to be inert - not combining with any other atoms. Some atoms share electrons to make them more stable. So how is a free radical formed?

Normally speaking, an electron bond doesn't split to leave an atom with an odd, unpaired electron. But when a weak bond does split for any reason a free radical is formed. These are very unstable molecules that are fighting to gain a new electron to become stable and will attack any molecule to get that. Once a free radical steals an electron from its nearest stable molecule that too becomes a free radical providing a chain that will eventually lead to the break down of that cell - which could be any cell in the body.

Sometimes these free radicals occur naturally during an increased metabolism or via the immune system to attack or neutralize a virus or bacteria found in the body.

And this is when we are happy that they we have them so they do have a positive to their very negative reputation. But other factors such as the environment, pollution and smoking can increase free radical production as well as age which is proven to show increased free radical activity.

Free radicals and cancer

Most recently free radicals have been linked to an increased risk of cancer for many reasons. One theory is that excessive free radicals can actually alter our DNA and in turn cause a mutation of some cells into cancerous cells. There is a lot of press recently about how current lifestyle and eating habits are linked to a higher amount of free radicals particularly in processed foods. However, it is impossible to make a direct link between the two as it is still unknown what the cause of cancer is, but we know that free radicals are dangerous and if they increase it could be a risk factor that shouldn't be ignored.

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