Exercise-induced free radicals: friend or foe?

Posted in Active Bites |
Key Facts: 
  • Previously free radicals have been thought of as damaging to health.
  • Exercise-induced free radicals may do more good than harm.
  • Eating a whole food diet can strengthen our defence systems.

‘Free radicals’ don’t usually get good press.  They’ve been hijacked as the ultimate baddies where anti-ageing is concerned.  Destructive, damaging and toxic is about the measure of it.  Antioxidants, on the other hand, protect, nurture and are all about promoting health and vitality.  But if you’re one of the many who reach for an antioxidant supplement before taking a breath in the morning, have you ever stopped to consider that free radicals produced in moderate amounts may actually be working in your favour?

Loose Canons

Reactive oxygen species, more commonly known as free radicals, are produced when we convert what we eat into energy.  The problem is they’re unstable molecules, loose cannons that zip around wreaking havoc in the body in their quest to find other molecules to attach to.  Once they attach, the other molecule becomes unstable too and it becomes like a house of cards in terms of the damage that can spread.  What we can’t get away from is that free radicals are produced all the time.  We produce them from the minute we’re born, when we exercise, when we smoke, and when exposed to radiation, UV light, pesticides and solvents.  The list goes on!

Does pill-popping help?

Help comes in the form of antioxidants that defend us against these tissue damaging, pro-ageing, disease-promoting wreckers.  Antioxidants offer stability to a free radical by donating a small particle, or electron, to neutralise the situation.  Some of the commonly known antioxidants come from food, such as Vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin found in cell membranes.  Others we can produce ourselves, such as glutathione, provided we have the right raw materials in the first place.   It would be pretty useful if we could stockpile these antioxidants so we could defend against free-radical damage all the time.  But we are our own worst enemy if we constantly engage in unhealthy lifestyle habits, including eating nutrient-depleted diets, exposing ourselves to toxins on our skin, in our food and in our homes, regularly take medications, and are chronically stressed.  It would take quite a stockpile to deal with this lot!  And it does not always work this way that by taking large doses of free-radical scavengers in pill form we can counteract the ravages of a poor lifestyle.

Cardio lifeline

But before you put your head in your hands at the hopelessness of the situation, bear in mind that nature always gives us a lifeline — cardiovascular exercise, or cardio, for short.  Cardio literally means ‘living on air’.  In other words, using oxygen to meet our energy demands.  This aerobic energy-generating process can only be achieved if we can still talk and breathe at the same as we’re exercising.  Of course with all this living on air business we do create some free radicals, but as long as we don’t overdo it, they might even be able to work in our favour.

We are perfectly able to adapt to demanding situations as long as they don’t go on for too long.  Indeed our body is capable of rising to the challenge by increasing our natural response to free radical attack.  And, ironically, these seemingly trouble-making scavengers may actually have a protective effect against insulin resistance and associated diseases.  Aerobic exercise that isn’t exhaustive activates certain genes that send messages to enzymes and proteins where both the bad and the good guys can collaborate together.  Suffice to say, we may be doing more harm than good by taking those free-radical quenching pills. Also, by having them in their natural food- form, they can work synergistically with other nutrients.

That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger!

It might be more prudent to do some moderate exercise instead and eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. And by choosing organic you are eating a plant that has had to mount its own defence against pests and parasites and other invaders.  Yes plants produce their own toxic compounds to defend themselves and these are known as phytochemicals. And it is these naturally colourful chemicals in our plant food that are so beneficial to our health because they strengthen our own internal defences.  Resveratrol that comes from red grapes can activate genes associated with reduced fat and better vitality.  Sulforaphane found in broccoli and other cruciferous veg is a powerful detoxifier.  Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been described by the WHO as liver protective and an inflammation inhibitor.

Many studies show that exercise in moderate amounts and a healthy diet results in a stronger, more flexible immune system and those people who are physically active may be protecting themselves against cancer.

Date: 08 January 2015