free radicals, antioxidants, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, OPC

Free Radicals: Agents of Aging

Free Radicals: Agents of Aging

© 2006 Wellness Clubs of

One of the most nagging questions of medical science is "Why do we age?"  What mechanisms are at work that cause our bodys to deteriorate over time?  If we are constantly replacing old cells with new ones, why do we not stay forever young?

Three theories of aging are dominant at the present time:  Free radical damage, loss of methylation ability, and development of inflammation.  Of these, the free radical theory is the oldest and best known.

Free radicals are unbalanced molecules that are looking for a partner.  Because of oxygen's chemical make-up oxygen-containing molecules are particularly susceptible to becoming unbalanced.  This is beneficial in many ways, because it is this characteristic of oxygen that allows us to burn wood or other fuels for warmth, to prepare our food, and to propel our vehicles.  It is also what facilitates most energy production in our bodies.  An excess of free radicals, however, can wreak havok. 

Free radicals cause metals to rust, window treatments to deteriorate over time, tires to dry rot, and car finishes to oxidize.  In our bodies these same free radicals attack cell membranes, DNA, and substances such as LDL cholesterol.  Each time we take a breath we flood our system with oxygen free radicals. It is postulated that each cell in our body is attacked by a free radical 10,000 times a day. The effects of these attacks are readily visible.  Cigarette smokers face the greatest challenge.  It has been postulated that each puff of cigarette smoke delivers a quadrillion free radicals to the body (a quadrillion is a thousand million).

Red blood cells, unlike most cells in our body, continually circulate. A red blood cell has an expected life span of 120 days. It begins its life with a smooth round disk, slightly narrower in the center than near the edge. Over time, free radical attacks damage the cell membrane. The cell does its best to repair the damage but over time its shape is dramatically altered. Older red blood cells often appear less like disks than helmets, Pac-men, and jigsaw puzzle pieces.

The original shape of a red blood cell is designed to maximize the uptake and release of oxygen. As the surface is eaten away the ability of the cell to release oxygen to the tissues of the body is dramatically reduced and vitality suffers.

Many Americans are convinced that they have “bad” cholesterol circulating through their arteries causing arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) leading to strokes and heart attacks. This is simply not true. The body’s design is perfect. God did not make mistakes. He did not place harmful substances within the human body.

LDL cholesterol, the so-called “bad” cholesterol is not only harmless in its native state, it is absolutely essential to good health. When a molecule of LDL cholesterol is attacked by a free radical, however, its appearance is altered and the body no longer recognizes it. A specialized white blood cell called a macrophage goes into action and pulls the oxidized LDL cholesterol out of circulation and into the wall of an artery forming the first stage of an atherosclerotic plaque.

Free radical damage in the brain is now believed to be a major factor in degenerative neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases. One of the major foci of neurological research in recent years has been the development of medications that are designed to slow the rate of free radical damage. 

Free radical damage has been implicated in the development of most chronic degenerative diseases. Fortunately, each of us has within us a carefully and wonderfully designed anti-oxidant defense system. We simply need to provide appropriate nutrients to allow it to function properly.

Well over 100 nutrients are needed to allow the body to function properly. Very few can be obtained in optimum amounts through diet alone. Some nutrients are known to play key roles in the body’s antioxidant defense, but I believe that many others support the process in ways that are not yet understood.

I recommend two distinct types of antioxidant supplementation. The first is broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral support. Many people come to me reporting that they are taking vitamin E or vitamin C. Several report taking a preparation of vitamins B-6, B-12 and folate. These supplements provide some degree of protection, but such regimens fall far short of optimum support. Vitamin and mineral regimens should include vitamins A, B, C, D, E, & K and all major and trace minerals. Optimum levels of the major antioxidant nutrients would be 20,000 to 25,000 IU of vitamin A, some of which may be in the form of beta or mixed carotinoids, 400 IU of vitamin E, 1000 mg. of vitamin C and 150 mcg of selenium.

Do not rely solely upon a supplement advertised as an “Antioxidant Formulation” containing A, C, E and selenium, however. While these nutrients support specific aspects of the body’s antioxidant defense mechanism nearly all vitamins and minerals play a role. B vitamins, Vitamin D, and even vitamin K are now known to function as antioxidants in the body in addition to performing their primary activity.

The second level of antioxidant protection is obtained from plant nutrients called phytochemicals. Green plants such as spirulina, chlorella or green tea provide an excellent level of antioxidant protection. Proanthocyanidins like grape seed extract or pycnogenol have been referred to as “super-antioxidants” in part because they help to carry vitamins like C and E into the tissues of the brain and spinal cord where they are needed.

While it is not possible to live in a chamber isolated from free radicals, it is possible to effectively counter their attacks. It is possible to keep our LDL cholesterol in its natural state and in so doing prevent the formation of new atherosclerotic plaques. It is possible to prevent cellular damage, and in so doing avoid or at a minimum slow the progression of the degenerative processes that are commonly thought to be a natural consequence of aging.

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