Your deepening wrinkles or the gray hairs that almost seem to pop up overnight on your head may be the visible signs of your aging. But the aging that goes on inside your body actually has more far-reaching consequences.
Much of the internal damage which gathers over a time, and the diseases that go with it, might be connected to roguish molecules inside us named “free radicals.” So says Sheldon Hendler, M.D., Ph.D., author of the book The Complete Guide to Anti-Aging Nutrients.
But we don’t have to accept passively what the years dish out. “Free radicals are something we can identify measure and do battle with,” says Dr. Hendler.
Radicals abuse your body
Free radicals are as wild as they sound. “Actually, they don’t like being ‘free,’ at least in the sense of remaining single or unattached,” he says. They are typically substances with unpaired electrons, and that puts them in a “desperate tizzy to get hitched to almost anything they can grab onto.”
When they latch onto something, it’s known as oxidation. And oxidation can “rust” the body almost as it does metal. ‘This oxidation occurs most readily in fats. So cell membranes, which are rich in fat molecules, are prime targets. A free-radical attack on the cells could kill or severely damage them leaving them vulnerable to cancer or other diseases.
“Given the fact that fats account for more than 40 percent of the total calories in the typical American diet, it is not difficult to see how we might be exposed to extensive free-radical activity,” says Dr. Hendler.
Free radicals, which are created by the body’s normal metabolism, as well as by radiation, ozone exposure and cancer-causing chemicals, do have a purpose, however. Some play a role in the body’s enzyme reactions and help kill invading bacteria. But the extras are bad guys. They leave not only destruction in their path but also their imprint, an age pigment called lipofuscin.
The “nutritional four” to the rescue
“The details of how free radicals cause disease are not really fully known, but they do,” says Denham Harman, M.D., Ph.D., of the University Of Nebraska School Of Medicine. “There is a great deal of data indicating that, when all is said and done, free radicals are the major cause of many diseases.”
So far, free radicals have been implicated in a long list of problems that accompany aging. Included among them are cancer, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoarthritis and immune deficiency, says Dr. Harman.
But there is good news. Substances called antioxidants can neutralize free radicals by pairing up their electrons. And vitamins C and E, forms of vitamin A, and the mineral selenium are known to be antioxidants that, along with antioxidant enzymes produced by the body, help to protect the body’s cells.
Researchers have found that vitamins E and C can decrease the level of free radicals in the blood. One hundred people, aged 60 to 100, were given vitamin E (approximately 200 international units) or vitamin C (400 milligrams), or both, daily for a year. The vitamin E alone decreased the free radical level by 26 percent. The vitamin C decreased it by 13 percent. And the group taking both E and C decreased their levels 25 percent. (‘This level of supplement intake should be undertaken only with the approval and supervision of your doctor.)
Other evidence is surfacing that suggests that dietary antioxidants may be able to prevent free radical activity and some of its unpleasant side effects throughout the body. Here are some examples.
Research on animals has shown that vitamin C may protect the lenses of the eyes from the constant bombardment and damage by light and oxygen that makes them vulnerable to cataracts.
In a study conducted at Tufts University, the animals were fed either high or low doses of vitamin C. Those taking the higher doses got three to five times as much vitamin C in their lenses. Their lenses were then artificially aged by exposing them to ultra- violet light. They found that those with more vitamin C in their lenses were better able to withstand the photo- oxidative stress that was used to artificially age them.
“Ozone is one of the strongest oxidants known, so it has the potential for doing tremendous damage to the lungs and to the entire body when you breathe it in smoggy air,” says William A. Pryor, Ph.D., director of the Bio-dynamics Institute at Louisiana State University. Ozone weakens the body’s ability to use oxygen for energy metabolism. The effects can be subtle or they can kill.
Numerous studies have shown that susceptibility to lung damage from ozone may be reduced by adding vita- min E supplements to animals’ diets and animals given vitamin E live appreciably longer than vitamin E-deficient animals when exposed to ozone.
Vitamins A, E and C and selenium may play roles in preventing some cancers, says Ronald Ross Watson, Ph.D., of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the Arizona Health Sciences Center in Tucson. Studies have concluded that:
- Areas with low selenium in the soil and water have more deaths from cancers of the esophagus, stomach and rectum.
- Vitamin A insufficiency might boost the chance of cancers of the bladder, lung, stomach, larynx, prostate, esophagus, colon, and rectum.
- Vitamin C reduces the risk of cervical dysplasia, a precancerous condition.
- Vitamin E may have a role in reducing the risk of lung cancer, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.
“We know that immune function declines with age,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “And we’ve found in our animal studies that high levels of vitamin E are capable of reversing this decline. Not totally reversing to levels comparable to those in younger animals, but partially.”
Our immune systems play an important role in resisting diseases. “If the immune system is less vigorous, then disease has a much greater chance of winning,” he says.
“It hasn’t been proved, but many people have suggested that senile dementia has its origin in free radical damage,” says Dr. Blumberg. “We don’t know how free-radical damage might cause senile dementia, but one way it could do that is by damaging nerves in the brain.
“We have shown in our study that free-radical damage occurred in the brain more readily in old animals than in young animals,” he says. “We also found that vitamin E protects against that damage. When we gave the animals vitamin E-deficient diets, the damage was much greater. The effects were similar in the liver, but we were mainly interested in looking at the brain.”
It is reasonable to expect that we can stay healthier and increase average life expectancy (now 74.8 years) 5 or more years while possibly increasing the maximum life span slightly beyond 100 years, says Dr. Harman.
The probability of developing any one of the “free-radical diseases” may be decreased by eating a diet rich in natural antioxidants, such as vitamins E and C, and low in total fat (including unsaturated fats) and by not overeating, says Dr. Harman.
Free radicals are by-products of our metabolism. The more you eat, the more free radicals your body creates and has to contend with, he says. By doing all you can to put the lid on free radicals, you’ll be helping to preserve your youthfulness where it really counts inside.