What are Free Radicals?

First let’s define free radicals; free radicals are simply unstable oxygen molecules that can cause damage to living cells and thus can cause disease. If you’ve ever seen rust on a car, this is an example of the oxidation process on metal. The same oxidation process is harmful on human bodies. Oxidative stress plays a role in many diseases including cancers. Examples of free radicals include cigarette smoke, exposure to chemicals, exposure to radiation, foods that are deep fried, pollution, trans fatty acids, alcoholic beverages, and the byproducts of normal metabolism.

Although light drinking of red wine has a beneficial effect on the body, particularly the cardiovascular system, heavy drinking of other types of alcohol initiates a free-radical process that has been linked to heart disease, stroke, liver cirrhosis, and other diseases. So, let’s say that you had a few too many cocktails to welcome the New Year. Assuming this isn’t a regular practiceif it is, refer yourself to AAmaintaining health is all about balance. Read below to find out what foods to eat to kill off all those free radicals you generated as you celebrated.

The body does produce a small amount of free radicals as part of it’s normal metabolic process, however, in a healthy individual with a strong immune system, these free radicals are destroyed by the action of free radical scavengers that occur naturally in the body. These scavengers are enzymes that neutralize free radicals. Some important enzymes that destroy free radicals are superoxide dismutase (SOD), methionine reductase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase. These scavenger enzymes are made by the body and act like an army; think of them as the first line of defense.


The second line of defense are the antioxidants and other nutrients that come from our diets to eliminate free radicals. Antioxidants are natural compounds, or elements, that protect our cells from the harmful effects of free radicals. There are a multitude of antioxidants but the most common are vitamins A, C, E, Zinc, Selenium, and Alpha-Lipoic Acid.

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, found in many foods, including carrots, butternut squash, cantaloupe, dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, dandelion greens, mustard greens, turnip greens), dried apricots, egg yolks, lettuce, mangoes, papaya, peaches, peas, red bell peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes.

Foods high in Vitamin C, a water-soluble vitamin, include bell peppers, broccoli, citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, limes), dark green leafy vegetables, guava fruit, kiwi fruit, papaya, red and green hot chili peppers, strawberries, and tomatoes.

Vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin, is found in avocado, fish, nuts, seeds and their oils (ie. olive oil), shellfish, spinach, and tofu.

Zinc containing foods include beef, chicken, chocolate (cocoa powder), lamb, mung beans, mushrooms, nuts, oysters & other seafood, pumpkin seeds, spinach, and wheat germ.

Selenium is found in brazil nuts, fish, meat (beef, chicken, lamb, turkey), mushrooms, oysters, rye bread, sunflower seeds, whole wheat bread.

Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA) is considered a universal antioxidant because it has the ability to recycle other antioxidant vitamins. It’s found in every cell of the human body. Food sources are few, primarily green leafy vegetables and animal foods. Therefore,supplementing the diet with 250-500 mg perday of ALA is recommended.

Other food substances that have antioxidant properties are the herbs bilberryand burdock, Coenzyme Q10, flavonoids, garlic, ginkgo biloba, glutathione, grape seed extract, green tea, melatonin, methionine, pycnogenol, and silymarin.

Here’s to your health!

References: (1) Power Foods by Stephanie Beling, MD; (2) University of Pennsylvania Health System, “Alcohol Consumption Triggers Free-Radical Damage in the Body, Sept 13, 1999; (3) The Perricone Promise by Nicholas Perricone, MD; (4) Prescription for Nutritional Healing, by Phyllis A. Balch, CNC & James F. Balch, MD.