by Dr. Joseph Debé
Maintaining health, overcoming disease, and living a long life, all depend, in part, upon the body's ability to neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that have an unpaired electron. This makes them electrically charged, highly unstable and very reactive. Free radicals strip electrons from other molecules in order to restore their own balance. This, in turn, creates another free radical, which participates in a chain reaction of electron-stripping and free radical perpetuation. The body tissue involved in this process becomes physically altered. Thousands of free radical reactions can occur within seconds, leaving behind a wake of damaged tissue. Not only do free radicals produce structural damage to every tissue in the body, they also contribute to disease by their influence upon genetic expression via activation of gene regulatory proteins such as NF kappa B. Free radical reactions are stopped by chemical compounds referred to as antioxidants.
Although free radicals can be regulated, they cannot be totally eliminated. Free radicals are continually produced within the mitochondria of every cell during the process of energy production. Immune system cells use free radicals to destroy foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. The body also generates free radicals in the process of detoxifying toxins and waste products.
Not surprisingly, unbridled free radical production, referred to as oxidative stress, plays a role in inflammation, accelerated aging, and a variety of degenerative conditions including: cardiovascular disease, cancer, cataracts, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, diabetes, lung diseases, autoimmune diseases, liver diseases, kidney diseases, skin conditions, and more.
Antioxidants minimize free radical damage by restoring balance to the free radical and stopping the free radical chain reaction. Antioxidants accomplish this by donating an electron to the free radical. It is important to note that many antioxidants become free radicals themselves upon donation of an electron. The antioxidant in this situation needs to receive an electron from another antioxidant in order to not contribute to free radical damage. For example, after vitamin C donates an electron to a free radical, it becomes what is known as the ascorbyl radical. The antioxidant known as reduced glutathione can restore ascorbyl radical to the antioxidant form of vitamin C.
Research indicates that imbalance in concentrations of different types of antioxidants within the body can contribute to excess free radical activity. This is why it is important to consume a wide variety of antioxidants from food and supplements. Simply taking high doses of a single antioxidant such as vitamin C or vitamin E, for example, may be counterproductive. Increased free radical activity may result! There are several different types of free radicals, and different antioxidants are effective at neutralizing each of them. Antioxidants function as a team and must be present within the body in proper balance for good health.
In order to minimize free radical damage in the body, we need to limit excess free radical production and assure strong antioxidant defenses. Excessive levels of free radicals are produced from: pollution exposure; toxin exposure, including exotoxins (those toxins derived from sources outside the body) such as heavy metals like mercury, lead, and cadmium, and endotoxins (those toxins derived from within the body) such as those produced from bacteria, yeast, viruses and parasites; trauma; radiation; electromagnetic fields; alcohol; cigarette smoke; medications; stress; allergens; cold; excessive exercise; dietary factors such as excess sugar, saturated fat, and fried oils; malnutrition; various disease states; altered physiologic states such as maldigestion/ malabsorption, inflammation, and insulin resistance.
The antioxidant defense system consists of biochemicals produced by the body and those obtained from food. The body's endogenous antioxidants include: reduced glutathione; alpha lipoic acid; uric acid; bilirubin; NADH and NADPH; coenzyme Q10; and the antioxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase. The antioxidant enzymes require adequate dietary intake of zinc, copper, manganese, iron, and selenium for their function. Dietary antioxidants, which are found primarily in plant foods, include: vitamins C and E, carotenoids, flavanoids, anthocyans, grape seed extract, green tea extract, and many other phytochemicals (plant-derived chemicals). Various herbs and spices also have antioxidant activity. Gingko biloba, for example, is a plant extract that is particularly protective of nerve cells from free radical damage. Milk thistle is a liver-specific antioxidant. Again, it is important to assure intake of a wide variety of antioxidants in order to fully inactivate free radicals.
Until recently, doctor and patient alike could only guess about the state of free radical-antioxidant balance within the body. Now there is available a laboratory test which measures markers for free radical activity and antioxidant defenses. Free radicals are too small and too short-lived to be measured directly, but we can detect their activity by measuring other compounds. A urine specimen is analyzed for levels of lipid peroxides and a compound called 2, 3-DHB, both of which are indicators of free radical activity. High concentrations of 2, 3-DHB reflect high levels of the most damaging free radical, hydroxyl radical. High levels of lipid peroxides are evidence of hydroxyl radical damage to fatty tissues throughout the body. Cellular and subcellular membranes are largely composed of fat. Fat is found in high concentration in such organs as the brain, breast, immune and endocrine systems.
This special test, known as the Oxidative Stress Analysis, also measures a blood sample for levels of reduced glutathione, glutathione peroxidase, and superoxide dismutase. Reduced glutathione is the single most important antioxidant found within cells. Glutathione peroxidase and superoxide dismutase are two of the body's antioxidant enzymes and are, incidentally, inducible by aerobic exercise. Elevated levels of reduced glutathione, glutathione peroxidase, and/or superoxide dismutase indicate the body is diligently battling a heavy free radical load. Subnormal levels of these antioxidants indicate the body is ill-equipped to effectively neutralize free radicals. In this case, additional antioxidant support from food and supplements is critical. Results of the Oxidative Stress Analysis guide customized natural treatment.