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Free radicals aren't all bad. They're molecules that have lost an electron. When a molecule loses an electron, it behaves like you do when you've lost your wallet or car keys, it goes crazy trying to find what it's lost. It's this searching for its replacement electron that makes free radicals so unstable.
When your body fights an infection or burns sugar for energy, free radicals are automatically produced - each one is a by-product of the process. The problem is that when there are too many free radicals rushing around your body trying to find a spare electron, they combine with cells and tissues. When they hook up with a cell, they can cause leakage or clogging within it, which will lead to the death of the cell. They interfere with the structure of the cell exposing it to weakness - free radicals allow bad cholesterol (LDL) to stick to the walls of your arteries, for example. If there are only a few free radicals, your body can cope and repairs any damage, but if there are too many, you can suffer from any of the following: heart disease, premature ageing, Parkinson's, diabetes and cancer.
Free radicals can damage your DNA, causing it to reproduce incorrectly, not at all or at too high a speed. They can even cause your DNA to produce carcinogens - cancer-causing chemicals. This effect is called oxidative damage and it's something everyone's body endures to some extent, although it gets worse as we age and the body becomes less able to combat its effects.
Although they occur naturally, free radicals are also formed by exposure to alcohol, chemicals (air fresheners or carpets made with man-made fibres, for example), cigarette smoke and pesticides. And those are the free radicals you need to worry about, because they burden your body with an excess, with potentially devastating health effects.
It goes without saying that cutting down on alcohol, quitting the cigs and avoiding overuse of household cleaners will help keep you healthy, but you can also use antioxidants to fight the free radicals. These are nutrients that mop up the mess left behind by the free radicals, deactivating them before they cause damage. Vitamin E, betacarotene and vitamin C are all good antioxidants.
Vitamin E targets free radicals in cell membranes, and is found in nuts, vegetable oils and whole grains. Vitamin C goes for the fluid in your body and attacks free radicals contained in that - eat kiwi fruits, citrus and potato skins to up your intake.
Carotenoids - from betacarotene - and flavonoids work against a wide variety of free radicals so are very important. Carotenoids are found in colourful vegetables such as carrots, red peppers and sweet potatoes, and also apricots are a good source of betacarotene. And you'll get flavonoids from cocoa (dark chocolate), green tea and citrus fruits.
So now you know what a great party free radicals are having inside your body - particularly after you've been partying - help your body fight the war by giving it a dose of antioxidants in the form of fruit, veg or nuts. You and your body are on to a winner.
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