Fighting Free Radicals

Chris Meletis, ND, executive director, Institute for Healthy Aging

To understand oxidative stress, think small. Really small. The oxygen you breathe helps tiny cell components, known as mitochondria, produce the energy that keeps the body alive. But this process also creates free radicals. These molecules aren’t all bad—they fight infection and activate enzymes—but when they’re not busy with those jobs, they can go rogue, attacking and damaging cells throughout the body. This contributes to common aging indicators like poor eyesight and sagging skin, as well as diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.

Internal or environmental stress also can fuel excessive free radical production. Several animal studies have shown that white blood cells produce more free radicals when you’re psychologically stressed. When you breathe or eat toxins such as ozone or pesticide residues, your liver works to neutralize them—again, creating free radicals. And ironically, even some things that are good for you, such as aerobic exercise, increase free radicals.

To help neutralize rogue free radicals, eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and other antioxidant foods. Among the best are cloves, oregano, rosemary, and cinnamon; acaí and cocoa; raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries; pecans, walnuts, and hazelnuts; artichokes; kidney and black beans; and raisins. Antioxidant supplements can help fill gaps.

To minimize toxin exposure, choose organic produce and chemical-free cleaning products when possible, and don’t use ozone-generating air purifiers, which can cause respiratory tract irritations. And do your best to get eight hours of shut-eye a night. “Getting adequate sleep supports healthy levels of melatonin, which is a phenomenal antioxidant,” Meletis says.

As tempting as it may seem, don’t use exercise’s bad oxidative rap as an excuse not to work out. You can counterbalance aerobic exercise’s free radical effect by cranking up your antioxidant intake before or after workouts, Meletis says. And new research shows that weight training twice a week for an hour actually rejuvenates muscle mitochondria in men and women age 65 and older. “Over the course of time, your body becomes better at dealing with the oxidative stress, which means once you start working out, keep it going, because your body is literally becoming a better exerciser even at the mitochondrial level,” he explains.