Oxidization: when it happens on metal surfaces, we call it rust; on an apple, it turns the flesh brown and eventually results in spoilage; on a skin cut, it creates a raw and inflamed condition until the oxidized cells eventually harden as they die off – a scab – and are replaced with new cells, resulting in a healed cut. This natural process of oxygen use is ubiquitous on this planet, occurring continually, twenty-four hours a day.
Within our bodies, oxidization also occurs and is responsible for the natural cycle of cellular life and death, an essential component of existence. For the most part, this process occurs within manageable parameters with which the body is designed to cope. One of those reactions is the creation of free radicals,the dissolution of certain stabilizing bonds that maintain the oxygen in chemical balance. The unstable oxygen or free radical is counteracted by naturally occurring anti-oxidants, chemicals the body produces specifically to stabilize the oxygen again.
Certain factors however influence the quantity of free radicals created at any one time, and they sometimes overwhelm the body’s natural counterbalance. If these free radicals simply attacked and destroyed another cell in their quest for stability, it wouldn’t be a problem; it would be in keeping with the life and death cycle of cells. Instead though, these free radicals begin jarring chain reactions as they vigorously seek out other molecules in order to re-stabilize, and they go about it with reckless abandon, often damaging the surfaces of cells they hit, and sometimes even causing damage to the DNA of otherwise healthy cells. That damaged DNA will begin to replicate itself just as normal DNA does, but now the cells created in the body are fundamentally altered. This type of mutation is believed by many in the medical community to be the root cause of some cancers.
The oxidative stress on a system – the creation of overabundant free radicals – is affected by many different factors including pollution, cigarette smoking, consumption of fried foods, excessive alcohol consumption, and pesticides. Each of these factors affects the well-being of the body in different ways, manifesting in a variety of diseases from diabetes to cancer to stroke, and even to Alzheimer’s Disease. The following chart comes from an amazing Internet resource: www.oxidativestressresouce.org.
So, what can be done? Well, there are a great many anti-oxidants that can help the body in its quest to keep the free radicals in check, and they’re found in abundance in different types of foods. Vitamins A, C, and E, along with beta-carotene are powerful anti-oxidants, as are a group of chemicals known as flavonoids with names as tongue-twisting as quercetin, luteolin, and catetchin. These vitamins and chemicals exist in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. Interestingly, the different types of anti-oxidants we consume help to effect control of free radicals in different parts of the body, so just loading up on vitamin A or E or just eating boatloads of broccoli isn’t going have the same beneficial effect as eating a variety of those foods mentioned.
The value of consuming this variety of anti-oxidants can’t be overstated. In fact, the USDA’s guideline for healthy eating doesn’t only deal with fiber, necessary minerals and vitamins, it also concerns the inclusion of anti-oxidants. Following the USDA’s guidelines for healthy eating is the single most important principle to follow as regards the stabilization of free radicals and the maintenance of a healthy body.