Free Radicals, Oxidation, AGEs & Antioxidants: What Does It All Mean?
You’ve heard the terms: Free Radicals, Oxidation, AGEs, Antioxidants – but what exactly are they, and why should you care? There is a lot to know about these processes, and how they cause disease and aging in the skin and body. It can get complicated quickly, but understanding the basics can help you appreciate how a healthy lifestyle will impact your skin and body. Here’s a quick 101.
Let’s start with a few definitions:
What are Free Radicals?
According to Rice University, free radicals are molecules with an odd number of (or unpaired) electrons. Electrons like to be in pairs, so having an unpaired electron makes them highly unstable and reactive; they go in search of an electron they can “steal” from a healthy cell, causing a chain reaction of cellular damage. Healthy cells then become damaged and function poorly. Some free radicals happen naturally in the body during metabolism of oxygen; but unhealthy lifestyle habits (such as exposure to UV rays or pollution, stress, poor diet or smoking) can increase the number of free radicals that occur. Free radicals can make you age, cause disease (such as cancer, asthma, diabetes and dementia to name a few) and they can wreak havoc on your skin.
What is Oxidation or Oxidative Stress?
As Dr. Weil states in his “Stumped by Oxidation”, it is the term for the chemical process of removing electrons from molecules. This process can generate dangerous byproducts including free radicals, which in turn causes cellular damage. The body is naturally under attack from this process through metabolism, but as stated above, external environmental and lifestyle habits can add to the process. Oxidative stress is the “total burden” of the oxidation process on your body, by constant production of free radicals.
What are AGEs and Glycation?
AGEs (or advanced glycation end products) are harmful molecules in the body, formed when sugar combines with protein or fat through a process called glycation. AGEs cause the tissue in the body to become harder, thicker and less pliable; and can cause cataracts, kidney and nerve damage and hardening of the arteries. Also, there are studies showing growing evidence that AGEs contribute significantly to aging of the skin. The glycation process is the outcome of metabolism (this time sugar), and often comes from heat-processed foods (like meat or eggs) or high sugar diets.
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are the body’s defense system, helping to prevent free radical damage and slow the production of AGEs. Antioxidants are either man-made or natural molecules found in many plants and vegetables. They are called “anti”-oxidants because they help to inhibit the oxidation process. Antioxidants can also safely “donate” an electron to a free radical; stabilizing them and slowing the chain reaction of cellular damage. A key source of antioxidants comes from eating fruits, vegetables and seeds. Focus on vitamin C, E and beta carotene.
The Bottom “Anti-Aging” Line?
You are what you eat, and how much you move. There is evidence that eating healthy and regular exercise are the two most recognized ways to help reduce the process of oxidative stress and glycation. What can you do right now?
- Eat the rainbow – Limit sugar, red meat and packaged foods; add fresh fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants. See our article: “Antioxidants for a Healthier You”
- Use an SPF to protect your skin everyday – Even when you are just heading to the office. See our article: “5 Skincare Must Do’s”
- Exercise and/or meditate to reduce stress - See our articles: “How to Keep Running (or___fill in that blank) Post 40, 50 or 60” or “Reasons to Meditate on Meditation”
- Limited exposure to pollution - This includes smoke from cigarettes (even second-hand smoke). If you do smoke, QUIT! Over a short period of time you will feel and see an improvement in your health and skin.