The Free Radical Theory of Aging is one of the most widely adopted theories.
WTF Are Free Radicals?
To put it simply, free radicals are cells that went to the dark side; good cells turned bad, and they are one of the main contributors to the aging process. They are an inescapable part of life and are created within the body in many different ways, both in and out of our control.
WTF Are Atoms & Molecules?
So, in order to really get this whole free radical thing, there are a few technical components that you first need to understand. Bear with me here…
Remember hearing about protons, neutrons, and electrons during grade school? What about a nucleus?
Yeah, me neither.
Anyways, these are all components of an atom. The human body contains, like, a zillion different types of cells. Cells are made up of many different molecules. And molecules are made up of atoms.
To sum it up: ALL matter is made of atoms.
Now, let’s talk about chemical bonds for a minute.
Protons are located in the atom’s nucleus, while electrons surround the atom in at least one orbital shell. The number of protons determines the number of electrons. The innermost shell can have a maximum of two electrons. When it’s full, the remaining electrons occupy the second shell, which can hold a maximum of eight electrons, and… you get the point.
One very important thing to note: electrons love to be paired up. They’re like, totally obsessed. Stable molecules contain electron pairs in their outermost shells.
Atoms always strive to reach a state of maximum stability, which they achieve by filling their outer shell. If an atom has a full outermost shell, it just vibes. If it doesn’t, it goes on a little hunt to either gain or lose an electron, or bond to another compatible hunter atom, all with the goal of having a full outer shell in order to regain stability. Atoms that decide to pair up, do so via a chemical bond between two electrons, resulting in the formation of a molecule.
Still with me?
This is where the free radical thing comes into play…
So, What Are Free Radicals?
Molecules generally have very strong bonds, but when these bonds weaken, they can break, and when this happens… voila! Free radicals are born.
Free radicals are metabolites; they are highly reactive, unstable, and unpaired atoms. They are formed when a molecule breaks into two single atoms, leaving each with only one electron.
Remember when I said that electrons are super obsessed with being paired up? Yeah, well the “one electron” thing causes free radicals to become super crazy and unstable, which ignites a chain reaction of free radical production.
How Are Free Radicals Formed?
A free radical can be any atom or molecule with a single, unpaired electron in its’ outer shell. There are many different types of free radicals, but they are all formed as a result of normal biochemical reactions within the body, both naturally from metabolic processes, and externally from exposure to environmental toxins.
Normal Metabolic Processes: Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS)
The most common and detrimental free radicals are created from oxygen molecules, commonly referred to as Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS).
Our bodies use a good majority of the oxygen we breathe to give us energy. Oxygen interacts with the body’s digestive system by burning glucose molecules from food to provide fuel to the body, and cells use oxygen to create energy to carry out their functions. The energy required to fuel normal bodily functions is produced in the mitochondria via the Electron Transport Chain, which powers Cellular Respiration.
Here’s the problem: the Electron Transport Chain modestly leaks electrons.
The byproducts of this natural bodily function are free radicals, or Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS).
Over 85% of the body’s free radical damage is caused by normal metabolic processes. This explains why the aging process is inevitable and why degenerative diseases are so common later in life. We have absolutely no control over this.
There are five different types of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS):
1. Singlet Oxygen (the least harmful, but still not good)
2. Superoxide Ion
3. Hydrogen Peroxide
4. Hydroxyl Radical (the worst of the worst)
5. Lipid Peroxide
Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) are very damaging and cause cells to become ineffective and unable to perform their normal functions.
Side Note: If you’re freaking out after reading the above statistic, don’t. We are still able to control and reduce this 85% by certain extrinsic factors, such as eating a nutritious diet full of antioxidants, and living a healthy lifestyle.
External Sources of Free Radicals
If you recall from my previous blog post, How Our Skin Ages, the skin is the body’s first line of defense against environmental toxins and external free radical damage, of which the skin is constantly being exposed to.
One of the primary functions of the skin is to act as a protective barrier against external factors.
80% of skin damage comes from the sun, which is commonly referred to as photoaging. (I want you to remember this next time you want to go lay out in the sun).
Other common external causes of free radical production include:
These factors (and many other external sources), react with the human body and cause molecules with weak chemical bonds to split, leaving one molecule with an unpaired electron. Remember, electrons are needy AF and literally have to be paired up or they’ll go nuts. The result? Free radicals.
If exposure to extrinsic factors is excessive, free radical production can spiral out of control fairly quickly. This is when the damage can start to occur.
How Free Radicals Damage Your Skin & Health
Free radicals are ruthless AF.
In an effort to regain its’ missing electron and return to a stable state, a free radical will attack pretty much any molecule it encounters, stealing an electron. When the attacked molecule loses an electron to a free radical, it then becomes a free radical itself, resulting in more free radicals. This process is called oxidation.
Have you ever wondered why an apple turns brown after you cut it? Or why metal rusts? Both of these are perfect examples of oxidation, and the human body ages in the same exact way.
To sum it up: Oxidation is when free radicals attack, or oxidize, other molecules, causing new free radicals to form.
The body’s antioxidant defense system naturally produces enzymes that neutralize free radicals. This allows the body to maintain control over oxidation and the production of free radicals.
The body already produces a fairly substantial amount of free radicals naturally, just by being alive. But, if exposure to extrinsic factors is excessive, free radical production can spiral out of control. When this happens, the body becomes unbalanced; the antioxidant defense system is unable to keep up with neutralizing free radicals. Free radicals start to outnumber antioxidants, and the body falls into a state of oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress is very damaging and leads to many detrimental health consequences, internally and externally. Oxidative stress negatively affects pretty much the entire body, including important molecules (nucleic acids, proteins, lipids), cell membranes, tissues, and organs.
Oxidative stress is the primary cause of aging and over 60 different degenerative diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and stroke, just to name a few, and… wrinkles!
As years go by, damage from free radicals and oxidative stress builds, which translates to the natural aging process.
Inflammation goes hand-in-hand with free radicals and oxidative stress. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to an infection, injury, or abnormal stimulus. The purpose of inflammation is to expedite the healing process and prevent infection from spreading. Unfortunately, inflammation is also one of the main underlying contributors to aging.
There are two types of inflammation: local and chronic.
Generally, when people think of inflammation, they associate it with pain, heat, redness, swelling, etc. These are all symptoms of acute, or local inflammation, which is a result of damage to a local area of the skin, such as a cut or bug bite. Pretty much, it’s NBD (no big deal).
The second type of inflammation is chronic, or systemic inflammation. This is the sneaky type that causes aging and degenerative diseases. Chronic inflammation is undetectable, painless, and unregulated. It accelerates aging in two step process:
1. Chronic inflammation is the body’s response to excessive amounts of free radicals, or oxidative stress.
When free radicals oxidize (multiply) in the body and the body is in a state of oxidative stress, cellular damage starts to occur. When cell are damaged, cytokines, or signaling proteins, trigger the body’s inflammatory system, or “inflammation cascade.” When this happens, leukocytes (white blood cells) move in and start creating their own free radicals, which kill bacteria and heal infection. The body also releases various chemicals, such as arachidonic acid, which causes inflammation to step in. For local inflammation, this is fine, but when the inflammation cascade is triggered by oxidative stress, chronic inflammation sets in as the body continuously works to repair the damaged cells.
2. The presence of chronic inflammation causes even more free radicals to be produced.
Inflammation works to remove damaged cells via Matrix Metallo
Proteinases (MMP’s). MMPs are the enzymes responsible for getting rid of the damaged, or injured cells and are necessary for repair and healing.
Here’s the problem: during their clean up process, MMPs always end up
removing healthy cells in addition to the damaged ones. For local inflammation, MMPs are good because they work to repair the skin, but for chronic inflammation, MMPs have the opposite effect- instead of repairing skin, they break it down.
There are over 30 different MMPs, but the only ones you really need to worry about are:
1. Collagenase: Breaks down collagen
2. Elastinase: Breaks down elastin
3. Hyaluronidase: Breaks down hyaluronic acid
Other noteworthy contributors to chronic inflammation include: stress & alcohol.
Ultimately, chronic inflammation is a very vicious cycle. The only way to combat inflammation is to reduce the amount of free radicals in the body by minimizing exposure to external free radical sources, and eating a nutrient dense diet.
How Do Free Radicals F*ck Up Your Plan to Stay Hot Forever?
When free radicals start to oxidize, they don’t mess around. Free radicals attack the building blocks of cells: proteins, nucleic acids (DNA & mRNA), and lipids.
Damage to Proteins
Let’s talk about proteins for a minute.
Proteins are to the body as Jay-Z is to the world of hip hop; they both run shit.
Okay, seriously though. Proteins, such as collagen and elastin, are pretty much involved in ALL cellular functions: structure, function, and regulation. They are critical for the human body to function normally.
Proteins are made up of hundreds of amino acids, which are bound together via peptide bonds. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.
When free radicals oxidize proteins, they destroy their enzymatic functions, which leads to protein cross-linking.
Cross-linking essentially links molecules together, forming a molecular sheet. This a very common result of free radical attacks.
I’m going to use collagen as an example here:
Collagen is the most abundant protein found in the human body. When collagen becomes cross-linked, the molecular sheet loses flexibility and elasticity, causing the collagen to become hard and stiff, and obstructing nutrient waste transfer. The result is the formation of fine lines and wrinkles.
Damage to DNA
Now, let’s talk about DNA for a minute.
DNA is located in two places inside a cell: the nucleus, which stores DNA, and the mitochondria, which produces energy (only a very small amount is actually found here).
DNA is the boss of proteins. It dictates what proteins are made, and contains all the info used to create them. DNA is also responsible for directing cell functions.
Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) are able to reach and attack a cell’s nucleus and mitochondria and attack DNA.
When DNA becomes damaged, it’s kind of a big deal.
Most of the time, the body is able to repair damaged (mutated) DNA. However, if a cell has been totally f*cked up and is a total lost cause, the cell is destroyed. Our body’s contain a special gene, the p53 gene, which is triggered when irreparable DNA damage occurs. P53 initiates a process called apoptosis (cell suicide). The cell commits suicide in order to protect itself from becoming cancerous, or malignant.
Unfortunately, as with all things, as we age our body’s ability to repair damaged DNA decreases. In turn, it becomes easier for cancerous cells to form. The p53 gene causes more cells to commit suicide, which results in organ and tissue damage. Mitochondrial damaged inhibits a cell from being able to produce an adequate amount of energy function normally.
Moral of the story: DNA damage from free radicals is bad. Like, really bad.
Damage to Lipids
Lastly, I have to tell you about lipids, specifically in regard to the fifth type of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) that I previously mentioned, lipid peroxide.
First things first: a lipid is pretty much any molecule that isn’t water soluable, such as animal fats and plant oils. Lipids make up about 50% of cell membranes. Yeah, that’s a lot!
Lipid peroxide radicals attack a cell’s lipids, obviously. They especially love to go after unsaturated fatty acids.
When this happens, cell membranes become damaged and less permeable, which ultimately leads to the inability of cell membranes to transport nutrients, minerals, and oxygen. The process is known as lipid peroxidation.
How TF Can You Prevent Free Radicals From Ruining Your Life?
So, having read this article, you’re probably thinking that you’re SOL (shit outta luck) and that you’re plan to look young and hot forever are totally f*cked thanks to free radicals.
Calm down, drama queen. You’re not. Well, at least not completely.
Minimize Free Radical Exposure
Okay, so obviously we have absolutely no control over the Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) that are generated as a result of normal metabolic processes.
However, we can greatly reduce the amount of free radicals that are generated in our as a result of external stimuli and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
A few easy ways to reduce free radicals include:
– Minimize your sun exposure
– Always wear sunscreen
– Minimize your exposure to harmful toxins, chemicals, pollutants, etc.
– Don’t smoke, duhhh
– Eat a healthy, nutritious diet full of yummy antioxidants
– Drink alcohol in moderation
“Anti” – “Oxidation” >> Get it?
Remember earlier when I mentioned that antioxidants prevent oxidation from spiraling out of control and turning into oxidative stress? Well, you can thank them for looking hot right now.
Antioxidants are free radical scavengers. They neutralize free radicals by donating an electron, thus completing the outer shell and allowing the free radical to regain stability. This stops oxidation dead in its tracks and prevents free radicals from attacking more molecules.
Side Note: Antioxidants do not become free radicals after donating an electron. This is what makes them super amazing!
Antioxidants literally control how fast we age. Some antioxidants are produced in the body (endogenous), as part of the body’s defense against its own natural free radical production. Unfortunately, the human body’s ability to naturally produce antioxidants declines with age, which makes it THAT much more important to include them in your diet (exogenous) as often as possible. Not only will this help postpone the aging process, but it also will reduce your risk of degenerative diseases.
Antioxidants can be classified in many different ways – there are tons of them! The most important players are: vitamin C, vitamin E, Vitamin A, and glutathione.
It’s absolutely imperative to include a wide variety of antioxidants in your diet, each and every day, in order to maximize health benefits and have the greatest success with fighting free radicals and postponing the aging process.
Side Note: Topical antioxidants are just as important as including them in your diet.
To learn more about all of the BEST dietary antioxidants for anti-aging in my blog post, Antioxidants 101. XO