What Are Free Radicals? Understanding Their Impact on the Body

Fact Checked By Dr Mark Watson M.D.

Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that can cause damage to cells and tissues in the body. They are atoms or molecules with unpaired electrons, making them unstable and eager to bond with other molecules to stabilize themselves. These unpaired electrons make free radicals highly reactive and capable of initiating chain reactions that can harm our cells, proteins, and DNA. [1] In this article, we will delve into the fascinating world of free radicals, exploring their sources, effects, and how antioxidants can help counteract their damaging effects.

The Nature of Free Radicals

Free radicals are generated through various processes within the body, such as metabolism, inflammation, and exposure to environmental factors like pollution and radiation. [2] These factors can lead to the formation of excessive free radicals, overwhelming the body's natural defense mechanisms. When free radicals are not kept in check by antioxidants, they can cause oxidative stress, [3] a state in which there is an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body's ability to neutralize them.

The Damaging Effects of Free Radicals

Free radicals can wreak havoc on our cells and contribute to the development of numerous diseases. They have been linked to conditions such as cancer, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and many others. [4] These reactive molecules can damage cellular structures, including DNA, proteins, and lipids, leading to mutations, cell death, and impaired cellular function. [1] The cumulative damage caused by free radicals has even been associated with the aging process itself, although it should be specified, the oxidative stress caused by free radicals is just part of the picture. [5]

Sources of Free Radicals

Free radicals can be generated both internally and externally. Internally, they are produced during metabolic processes, such as the breakdown of food for energy. Externally, free radicals can be introduced into the body through exposure to environmental factors like air pollution, cigarette smoke, and certain medications. [6] Unhealthy lifestyle habits, including a diet high in fried foods, excessive alcohol consumption, [7] and exposure to pesticides and other toxins, can also contribute to the production of free radicals.

Symptoms and Testing for Free Radicals

While there are no specific symptoms directly associated with oxidative stress and free radical damage, certain signs may indicate an increased presence of free radicals in the body. These symptoms can include fatigue, headaches, memory loss, joint pain, and decreased immunity. [8] However, it is important to note that these symptoms can also be attributed to various other factors, and further testing is required to confirm the presence of free radicals. Direct measurement of free radicals in the body is challenging, but indirect methods such as analyzing byproducts of lipid peroxidation can provide insights into oxidative stress levels. [9]

The Role of Antioxidants In The Body

Antioxidants are molecules that can neutralize free radicals by donating an electron without becoming unstable themselves. [10] They act as scavengers, preventing the chain reaction of free radical damage. Antioxidants can be produced naturally by the body, but their production may not always be sufficient to counteract the effects of excessive free radicals. Fortunately, antioxidants can also be obtained through dietary sources, especially from fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods. Well-known antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and various phytonutrients (beneficial compounds found in plants). [11] A few examples of antioxidant phytonutrients include gingerols, shogaols and paradols (from ginger), or curcumin (from turmeric). 

The Link Between Antioxidants and Disease Prevention

Numerous studies have investigated the potential health benefits of antioxidants in preventing disease development. For example, the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) [12] found that a combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and zinc offered some protection against the development of advanced age-related macular degeneration. However, it is important to note that the results of studies on antioxidants have been mixed, and some trials have even shown potential risks associated with certain antioxidant supplements. [13] Therefore, obtaining antioxidants through whole foods is generally considered more effective and safer than relying on supplements.

Free Radicals and Exercise

Intense aerobic exercise can induce oxidative stress due to increased energy production and oxygen consumption. However, regular exercise has been found to enhance the body's antioxidant defenses, helping to counteract the initial oxidative stress caused by exercise. [14] Studies have shown that antioxidant supplementation does not provide additional benefits for individuals engaging in high-intensity exercise, as exhasustive excerise can produce free radicals. However, regular exercise reduces build up and by itself is sufficient to build up antioxidant defenses. [3] Therefore, consistent physical activity is essential for maintaining a healthy balance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body.

Protecting Against Free Radicals

While it is impossible to completely avoid free radicals, there are steps you can take to minimize exposure and protect against their damaging effects:

Maintain a healthy lifestyle by avoiding smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, and managing stress.Reduce exposure to environmental pollutants and toxins, such as air pollution and pesticides. Practice sun safety by limiting sun exposure, wearing protective clothing, and using sunscreen.Consume a diet rich in antioxidants, including a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and green tea.Consider natural dietary sources of antioxidants rather than relying on supplements, as they provide a broader range of nutrients and fiber.

By incorporating these strategies into your daily life, you can help support your body's natural defense mechanisms and minimize the impact of free radicals on your health.

Conclusion What Are Free Radicals In The Body?

Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that can cause damage to cells and contribute to the development of various diseases. Understanding the sources and effects of free radicals is crucial for maintaining optimal health. By adopting a healthy lifestyle, consuming a diet rich in antioxidants, and engaging in regular exercise, you can minimize the impact of free radicals and support your body's natural defense mechanisms. Remember, prevention is key when it comes to combating the damaging effects of free radicals on the body.

About Fact Checker Dr Mark Watson

Dr Mark Watson is the founder of Center TRT, having graduated from stamford more than 20 years ago, he is an expert in the field of supplemental health, focusing on long term benefits of complimenary treatment.


1 - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12031895/

2 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4310837/

3 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5551541/

4 - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7619452/

5 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3901353/

6 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1568603/

7 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6668865/

8 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5927356/

9 - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10424368/

10 - https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants-in-depth

11 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249911/

12 - https://www.nei.nih.gov/research/clinical-trials/age-related-eye-disease-studies-aredsareds2

13 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6316255/

14 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3456150/

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