How Free Radicals Damage Every Cell in Your Body

by Robin Thomas

How Can You Protect Yourself? 

The first step in your health journey is to be aware of your current health and the environment around you. The second step is taking decisive action to change. This article takes a look at free radicals, what causes free radicals, and how we can improve our health through reducing free radical damage.

What Are Free Radicals? 

Free radicals are highly reactive and unstable molecules produced as your body’s cells generate energy in order to stay alive. In a perfect world, your body naturally balances the ratio of antioxidants and free radicals, keeping you healthy. Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world, and throughout your daily life, excessive free radicals are formed, through unhealthy diets, sedentary lifestyles, smoking, alcohol and environmental factors such as pollution and radiation. 

Free radicals can cause damage to parts of cells such as proteins, DNA, and cell membranes by stealing their electrons through a process called oxidation. This process leads to inflammation in your body. It is impossible to completely avoid damage from free radicals. Free radicals are linked to aging and a host of chronic diseases. 

What Causes Free Radicals? 

Free radicals come from sources both inside (endogenous) and outside (exogenous) your body. Our own body generates these reactive atoms as a result of normal breathing, metabolism, and inflammation. Add on top of that environmental factors like pollution, sunlight, strenuous exercise, smoking, and alcohol. It’s simply a fact of life that cells and DNA damaged by free radical oxidation accumulate as you age. 

How Can We Reduce Free Radical Damage?

To minimize potential damage from free radicals, your body uses a defense system of antioxidants. Antioxidants are unique molecules. Their chemical structure allows them to do their main job—neutralizing free radicals. Antioxidants are molecules that can give or take an electron. That’s important because free radicals have unpaired electrons that make them very reactive. 

Antioxidants don’t mind helping out free radicals by donating or taking on an electron. With all the electrons paired up, these free radicals are neutralized and can be safely eliminated from the body.

The antioxidants we think about most include vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and selenium. These antioxidants must be provided by your diet. In addition, there are many plant-derived nutrients (phytonutrients) that can act as powerful antioxidants in the human body.

Some antioxidants can be created by your own body. Glutathione, superoxide dismutase (SOD), and catalase are all created by your body to help defend itself. Key plant nutrients have been shown to increase the production of these important antioxidants.

Are You Eating Enough Antioxidants?

When you begin a healthy diet and lifestyle, you want to support your body as it fights free radicals. It may seem reasonable that a consistently healthy and varied diet could provide high doses of antioxidants. But the average American gets a total of just three servings of fruits and vegetables each day when dietary guidelines call for five to thirteen servings!

Ninety-three percent of Americans fail to get even the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) for vitamin E. More than half of adults fail to get even the EAR for vitamin A. And without the necessary phytonutrients, you are certain not to have enough antioxidants created by your body to fight free radicals and inflammation. 

Eating enough fruits and vegetables is the best way to make sure that you are getting enough antioxidants in your diet. Evaluate your diet, and make sure that you get at least five servings per day. Additionally, a good multivitamin can increase your intake of antioxidant vitamins and minerals, and you should look for one that includes some antioxidant plant compounds as well.

Robin Thomas worked for 25 years in Medical Research at UNC studying inflammation in chronic and autoimmune diseases. She left UNC to start her own Wellness Business in 2004 and founded Living Well Connections, a community for people whose passion is healthy living, in 2015. Learn more at