At a molecular level, we’re comprised of basic elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, etc. These atoms are present in every cell of our bodies. Unfortunately, nature is imperfect and often, when these atoms join together to form compounds, the union isn’t always perfect. Electrons—one of the core building blocks of every atom and element—can get lost along the way, The result is something called a free radical.
You’ve likely heard the term free radicals before—likely in conjunction with another term: antioxidants. Free radicals are a problem for every person, and antioxidants are the solution. It’s why there’s a growing focus on the study of Vitamin E: one of the strongest antioxidants out there.
Understanding free radicals
Free radicals occur when our bodies break down molecules into individual atoms and atoms get lost along the way. For example, H2O is water, and it breaks down into two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Stable hydrogen atoms have one electron (hence the atomic number, 1). Stable oxygen atoms have eight electrons. But what happens if, after the breakdown, the oxygen atom only has seven electrons instead of eight?
Atoms want to be stable. If there’s an oxygen atom with a missing electron, it’s going to zoom around inside your body trying to pair with any other element that can give it an extra electron. These are free radicals, and they cause oxidative stress on the body.
What is oxidative stress?
Oxygen is one of the most abundant elements in our bodies, and also one of the most prone to becoming a free radical. When unstable oxygen atoms interact with elements they’re not supposed to, the result is oxidative stress: molecular stress that manifests in the body in many different ways:
- Damage to fatty tissue. You’ll notice this small type of oxidative stress in the form of wrinkles and bags under your eyes. This is why so many skin care products have Vitamin E in them, to specifically combat oxidative stress to fatty tissue.
- Damage to proteins. This type of oxidative stress can lead to anything from inflammation to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s Disease. Proteins are instrumental in regulating our body’s many processes and functions.
- Damage to DNA. At a deeper level, oxidative stress can cause everything from cancer to chronic disease, affecting the most fundamental building blocks of our cellular structure.
Ultimately, oxidative stress contributes to aging. It speeds up the stress time takes on our bodies, reducing our ability to heal and continue functioning at a high level.
Vitamin E’s role in combatting oxidative stress
How do we deal with free radicals? Through antioxidants, of course! These are compounds that have an abundance of electrons, which they donate to free radicals. The result is a stable molecule that’s no longer trying to bond randomly and instead, ready to contribute to your health and wellbeing.
There are many antioxidants out there; however, the most powerful are vitamins—specifically Vitamin E. Vitamin E is fat-soluble, which means our bodies build it up and can use it as-needed to fight free radicals. Moreover, it’s involved in immune function, which means it’s a powerful defender against free radicals in conjunction with the immune system.
Most important, however, is Vitamin E’s preventive capabilities. As mentioned, oxygen is one of the biggest perpetrators of free radicals in the body. Loose electrons in the body react rapidly with oxygen, forming reactive oxygen species (ROS)—a type of free radical. Vitamin E actually prevents ROS from forming when fat undergoes oxidation, which means stopping free radicals before they ever have a chance to form!
Balance is essential
Now, you might be wondering why a person can’t just load up on Vitamin E to prevent ROS from forming altogether? The answer is due to Vitamin E toxicity. As a fat-soluble vitamin, our bodies build up stores of Vitamin E (rather quickly). Excess Vitamin E can cause its own problems, including headaches, cramps, nausea and fatigue—among more serious problems if toxicity continues over long periods of time.
It’s also important to realize that some free radicals are actually good. According to studies, free radicals are both good and bad—good when balanced; bad when unchecked. For example, ROS and other free radicals are actually part of our bodies’ immune response and can ward off infection and illness. Other free radicals are scavengers, pairing with toxic substances in our bodies to stabilize and break them down.
When it comes to free radicals, balance is the answer. Our bodies have no trouble creating these unstable forces on their own—it’s just part of nature. When it comes to balancing them, antioxidants like Vitamin E are our first line of defense against limiting the effects of dangerous free radicals.