What Are Free Radicals & How Do They Affect Your Body?

Free radicals are produced as a by-product of many cellular reactions. They are kept in check by our body's natural supply of antioxidants, such as Co-enzyme Q10.

8 mins to read
free radicals

Where there’s fire, there’s smoke.

Our bodies are made up of over 37 trillion cells. Each cell is composed of molecules which are comprised of one or more atoms, joined by chemical bonds. Within every cell in our body, throughout every second of the day, biochemical reactions are taking place. Many of these reactions involve the transfer of electrons from one atom to another. And all of these reactions are essential to life: they enable each cell to perfectly perform the job it has been tasked with - like, helping our heart pump, our liver to detoxify, or our brain to send neurological signals.

One of the most important reactions is cellular respiration, which is the term for the cell’s energy production process. Cellular respiration happens deep within the mitochondria, the powerplants of the cell. Cellular respiration uses several molecules, including carbon atoms from the food we eat and oxygen from the air we breathe, to make a substance called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which is the major fuel source of the cell and therefore, our organs and tissues.

However, this life-essential process generates waste products called free radicals. In a way, free radicals are like the polluting exhaust generated by an engine that is burning fuel. Free radicals are commonly oxygen or nitrogen atoms with an unpaired electron in their outer shell. They are very unstable and move quickly to steal their missing electron from the closest stable molecule in its vicinity and in doing so, damage its molecular structure; the process is like the corrosive reaction which produces rust, although in this case, the impact may be with a fat or protein molecule, or even a strand of DNA.

Although free radicals have some important functions when present in the right place, with the right numbers, they can cause severe damage if overproduction occurs and the delicate cell equipment is harmed. So, preventing free radical damage is an important aspect of our ongoing health and vitality. However, many variables can contrive to make this a constant challenge: higher than normal levels of free radicals can be driven by environmental toxins, such as UV radiation, pollution and cigarette smoke and in addition, diets deficient in certain vitamins or minerals, or high in trans fats and sugar, also stimulate excessive free radical production.

They might be free, but they can be costly

Because they are at the core of the energy production process, mitochondria are responsible for 90 – 95% of the free radicals in our cells and as a result, are 10 times more exposed to free radicals than any other part of the cell. Mitochondria work hard to neutralize free radicals and keep them confined within, preventing them from escaping into the cell and creating problems. But over time, because of the constant free radical exposure, mitochondria start to suffer wear and tear.

Damage inflicted on mitochondria can be enough to kill them, but usually, does enough to disrupt their normal function. If the mitochondrial membrane is injured, it is less effective at containing free radicals, meaning that some may leak into the cell. Free radicals left unchecked can inflict severe damage on whatever cellular component they encounter – like the fat molecule, the protein molecule, or the DNA strand we mentioned earlier. And to make matters worse, dysfunctional mitochondria send incorrect messages, decrease energy production and produce more free radicals.

Initially, the consequences of mitochondrial dysfunction may be minimal, but because mitochondria can self-replicate; defective mitochondria end up making even more defective mitochondria. There is an accumulative effect and gradually, symptoms start to become more apparent. We don’t notice at first, but over time, we start to have less energy; we don’t recover as quickly from injury or illness; our organs age; and we start to look and feel older.

Hundreds of other vital cellular processes can be disrupted, causing severe damage to the cell and ultimately cell death. When cells are overwhelmed in this way, our body is in a state known as oxidative stress. At this point, symptoms become more widespread, as the disruption starts to impact on the functioning of our brain, liver, heart, kidney, and several other organs. Whole body systems, such as our immune system, are also affected.

Downstream, oxidative stress can cause some serious health issues and is known to be a precursor to many different health conditions; in the developed world, this includes seven of the top ten most costly to human life. Research also shows that oxidative stress is a major contributor to the aging process itself.

Reducing the risk of oxidative stress should be a top priority for an effective health strategy.

But don’t shoot the messenger

It is important to note that free radicals aren’t all bad and have some beneficial effects when present in the right place and with the right numbers. Our immune system uses free radicals to destroy damaged tissue and foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria, marking them for removal by the body. Free radicals are also thought to feed signals back to the mitochondria and other cells which help to calibrate and finely-tune cellular activities, such as cellular respiration, making it more efficient.

The challenge is not to eliminate free radicals entirely, but to get the right balance of free radicals, so they can contribute positively to cellular activity. It is when free radical levels are too high, that we shift into a state of oxidative stress.

Antioxidants: the body’s natural rustproofing solution.

Normally, the body counteracts free radical production with its own supply of antioxidants, and the cascade of electron-stealing can be controlled before it causes major disruption to the cell.

Antioxidants are scavengers that target free radicals and give them their missing electron, turning them back into a stable atom. This prevents free radical damage to other molecules within the cell; as such, antioxidants represent a natural rustproofing agent.

Mitochondria produce one of the most important home-grown antioxidants, called Coenzyme Q10 (more commonly known as CoQ10), which they use to line the mitochondrial membrane, giving it a secure, defensive barrier, which neutralizes free radicals, helping to protect essential energy production and prevent free radicals from escaping in the main body of the cell, where they can cause damage.

As previously explained, as we age, the daily grind starts to wear down the mitochondria; and when mitochondria are stressed, they under-perform. One of the additional consequences of mitochondrial dysfunction is that CoQ10 production declines, resulting in a weaker lining of the mitochondria’s defensive barrier, allowing free radicals to escape. And as we now know, rogue free radicals are something we want to keep a lid on.

Sustain the level of antioxidant protection and limit free radical damage at the source.

It should come as no surprise that all the components of a healthy lifestyle – a good diet, regular exercise and adequate sleep – will certainly provide an environment in which your mitochondria can thrive. And when your mitochondria are finely-tuned, CoQ10 antioxidant production is optimized.

But it’s important to note that even if you look after your mitochondria through a healthy diet and regular exercise, they still decline naturally as you age. That is why, along with embracing a healthy lifestyle, taking an antioxidant supplement that boosts your mitochondrial performance and does not interfere with free radical signalling, is the very best strategy to help you maintain energy levels, protect your cells and support optimal wellbeing.

Give your mitochondria the support they need, right where they need it.

The world is waking up to the importance of the mighty mitochondria; there is growing awareness of how critical they are for life - therefore, we need to look after them as much as possible.

MitoQ is a breakthrough, mitochondria-targeted CoQ10 antioxidant, which is absorbed directly into the body of the mitochondria, hundreds of times more effectively than other CoQ10 supplements, where it is used to line the mitochondrial wall, helping to maintain its structural integrity and neutralize the free radicals that accumulate within. The unique properties of MitoQ also help to ensure that the important free radical signalling is not impaired.

MitoQ is one of the most-studied mitochondrial-targeted CoQ10 antioxidants. Research has shown that after oral administration, MitoQ rapidly accumulates in mitochondria-rich tissue such as the heart, brain, skeletal muscle, liver and kidney, helping to guard against oxidative stress and maintain healthy function and performance.

MitoQ is a world-first, mitochondria-rejuvenating CoQ10 antioxidant.

Learn more about MitoQ

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