Free radical damage

•   Free radical attacks on DNA, which is the genetic material of the cells, cause cells to die or mutate and possibly become cancerous. Free radicals may be involved in cancers of the lungs, cervix, skin, stomach, prostate, colon and esophagus.

•   Free radicals also attack blood fats which may lead to heart and blood vessel disease. When the LDL type of cholesterol reacts with free radicals it becomes damaged and this may lead to atherosclerosis. Unless LDL cholesterol becomes damaged it does not seem to be harmful. Thus the damaging of LDL cholesterol is a critical link between high blood cholesterol and the build-up of vessel-blocking plaques. Atherosclerosis is the major cause of hardening of the arteries and therefore of heart attacks. Levels of another type of cholesterol, known as HDL cholesterol, which may protect against cardiovascular disease, may be lowered by free radical activity.

•   Free radicals can also damage cellular enzymes. The processes which depend on these enzymes slow or stop, leading to cell damage and death. Dormant enzymes can also be activated and this can result in tissue damage.

•   Cells contain components called mitochondria which are responsible

for respiration and energy production. Free radicals can damage mitochondria, affecting the ability of the cell to produce the energy it needs to function.

•   Substances which are toxic to nerves can also be released by free radicals, leading to nerve and brain damage, such as that seen in Parkinson's disease.

•   Free radicals may be involved in the loss of transparency of the lenses of the eye, leading to cataracts and macular degeneration.

•   Free radicals may be involved in the inflammatory response seen in rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.

•   Free radicals may also damage sperm causing infertility and birth defects. They may also be involved in ulcers and other digestive tract disorders, liver damage and reduced resistance to infection and disease.

Reducing free radical damage

Damage from free radicals can be minimized by avoiding excessive exercise, pollution, pesticides, cigarette smoke and other dangerous environmental factors. Eating a diet of foods rich in antioxidants is also extremely important. There are many powerful antioxidant compounds in foods which can strengthen the body's defense systems.

Individual levels of antioxidants depend on many factors including lifestyle, state of health, diet and heredity. People vary in their ability to absorb and metabolize different antioxidants, just as they do in the case of other nutrients. Some people may be able to obtain all the antioxidants they need from a healthy diet and others may benefit from supplements. However, until accurate tests are readily available it is not always easy to identify those who do have higher needs. With diseases where prevention is most important, it may be too late to reverse the adverse effects of free radical damage once susceptible people are identified. Several tests are being developed to measure oxidant stress. Such tests might establish the doses of antioxidant vitamins necessary to provide protection in individuals.

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