What Causes Free Radicals? (The Proven Truth)

what causes free radicals
what causes free radicals

The question of what causes free radicals has received plenty of attention since Denham Harma first introduced the theory of them to scientific circles in 1956.

Today’s post provides the proven answer that explains how the air we breathe also contributes to free radical formation. As alarming as that sounds, it also provides a look at free radicals’ natural nemeses, antioxidants.

Let’s begin by agreeing that we need oxygen to survive. In the early 21st century, at least, there’s no argument on that.

But, as I’ve previously posted, when our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1775, only Benjamin Franklin had a small inkling of oxygen’s existence. 

We’ve learned much about oxygen during the past two hundred years, But there’s still much we don’t know. 

Oxygen’s Role in What Causes Free Radicals

Something we have established about what causes free radicals is that mitochondria are their primary producers. Remember learning about mitochondria in 7th grade?

Cellular respiration in the mitochondria is what causes free radicals to form.
Cellular respiration in the mitochondria is what causes free radicals to form.

Mitochondria act as our cells’ digestive systems and lungs. As cellular power plants, they convert nutrients and oxygen into energized ATP (adenosine triphosphate) molecules.

This process is known as cellular respiration.

Just as our digestive system makes waste and our lungs make carbon dioxide, mitochondrial respiration produces by-products. What are they?

They’re free radicals, otherwise called reactive oxygen species (ROS) molecules. 

We don’t want carbon dioxide or feces lingering in our bodies any longer than necessary. For the same reasons, we want our free radicals gone as soon as possible.

That’s where the antioxidants come to our aid!

Antioxidants Keep Your Free Radicals in Check

Antioxidants are constantly helping your body balance its free radicals. For example, the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD) detoxifies about one million free radicals per second.

SOD is at work 24 hours a day, cleansing your cells of free radicals every day of your life. And it’s just one of many antioxidants performing this life-saving service on your behalf. 

And, as your mitochondria provide your cells with continuous energy, they’re also creating continuous free-radical waste.

As long as your free radicals and antioxidants remain in balance, there’s no problem. Things change quickly, however, as soon as your free radical population exceeds your antioxidant supply. 

Pro-Oxidants and Excessive Free Radicals

Now that we’ve explained how mitochondrial function is what causes free radicals – what causes excessive free radicals?

Pro-oxidants! By enhancing free radical formation or impeding antioxidants, pro-oxidants generate oxidative stress.

And unfortunately for us, environment- and lifestyle-related pro-oxidants are all too common. They include:

For many of us, the environmental factors are unfortunately inescapable facts of life. However, unhealthy lifestyle choices are more manageable.

Common themes in this blog include:

  • reducing stress by getting enough sleep and spending time in nature
  • healthier diet
  • daily exercise
  • reducing or eliminating alcohol
  • avoiding tobacco

When you consider how these unhealthy lifestyle choices cause excess free radicals, it’s obvious how desperately every cell in your body needs you to avoid them. 

You inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. You eat food that nourishes and energizes your cells before passing from your digestive systems as waste.

The oxygen and food enable your cells’ mitochondria to produce ATP molecules and expel free radicals. These are normal, natural processes. Pro-oxidants, however, are neither natural nor healthy. 

The air you breathe (oxygen and pollution included) and the foods you eat are what causes excessive free radicals that significantly impact your bodily functions – all the way down to the cellular level

It’s time to put these pro-oxidants behind us.

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