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The Danger of Free Radicals continued...

When a cell's DNA changes, the cell becomes mutated. It grows abnormally and reproduces abnormally -- and quickly.

Normal cell functions produce a small percentage of free radicals, much like a car engine that emits fumes. But those free radicals are generally not a big problem. They are kept under control by antioxidants that the body produces naturally, Blumberg explains.

External toxins, especially cigarette smoke and air pollution, are "free radical generators," he says. "Cigarette smoke is a huge source of free radicals." In fact, our food and water also harbor free radicals in the form of pesticides and other toxins. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol also triggers substantial free radical production.

Free radicals trigger a damaging chain reaction, and that's the crux of the problem. "Free radicals are dangerous because they don't just damage one molecule," Blumberg explains. "One free radical can set off a whole chain reaction. When a free radical oxidizes a fatty acid, it changes that fatty acid into a free radical, which then damages another fatty acid. It's a very rapid chain reaction."

These external attacks can overwhelm the body's natural free-radical defense system. In time, and with repeated free radical attacks that the body cannot stop, that damage can lead to a host of chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease.

Oxidative damage in skin cells is caused by cumulative sunlight. But if free radicals are in an internal organ - for example, if asbestos is in your lungs -- it stimulates free radical reactions in lung tissue. "Cigarette smoke has active free radical generators," says Blumberg. That's why stopping smoking is the biggest step anyone can take to preserving their health.

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