Free Radicals: A Major Cause of Aging and Disease

Any molecule or atom which has an unpaired electron in its outer orbit is known as a free radical. Free radicals are very unstable, highly reactive molecules. Normally free radicals are continually created in the millions in your physiology to carry on the metabolic activity of the body.

They are essential to life, we need them, and they fight infection. Our cells give a burst of these free radicals to kill the germs when we become infected with bacteria, fungus, and parasites. Oxygen is what is known as a free radical; it is highly unstable. Oxygen is life saving but if you give 100% oxygen it is highly toxic.

Why does oxygen become toxic? It is a molecule which consists of two atoms of oxygen, and when they are combined they balance each other out. But it is unstable, and if the two atoms are separated, they become two free radicals. But free radicals are not limited to oxygen.

Any molecule, any atom in the body can become a free radical, and when it does it will try to balance itself by picking up an electron from the neighbouring molecule which in turn becomes a free radical and the vicious cycle continues until it is checked and controlled. If it is not controlled, damage occurs in different parts of the body.

As soon as these free radicals are created, they are checked by enzymes in the body which are known as anti-oxidant enzymes, or nutrients in our food that are known as anti-oxidant nutrients which you hear a lot about like vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene and bioflavonoids.

These are present in the plants, herbs, fruits and vegetables and are very powerful. If the generation of free radicals is much more than can be handled by the enzymes or anti-oxidant nutrients, then trouble arises, and they create damage in the cell membrane.

In a joint, it ultimately results in arthritis, in lungs we have emphysema and bronchitis, in the blood vessels we have atherosclerosis or heart disease, in the stomach we have peptic ulcer, in the skin, aging and wrinkling. In each area these radicals can produce damage.

In the nucleus, if free radicals are produced in the DNA, the DNA becomes transformed and it becomes mutated. Mutated transformed DNA will produce cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma. Diabetes, kidney problems, liver problems, almost every disease is related to the damage caused by these free radicals.

If we remove the damage we are causing ourselves, all these diseases can be prevented. And if they are over produced, there must be causes.


CHOLESTEROL You hear you should lower cholesterol, that cholesterol is harmful and high cholesterol causes a lot of problems. It is not the cholesterol which causes the problem, but the oxidized cholesterol, the cholesterol which has been damaged by free radicals, just like butter which turns rancid.

The highest concentration of cholesterol is in the brain and if you have low cholesterol, you will have problems in the brain. Every cell in the body contains cholesterol, and if you lower the level, the liver will try to compensate for that. Milk does not increase cholesterol.

One of the reasons that people get bloating from milk because of lactose intolerance is because they take milk cold. Cold milk is heavy and difficult to digest. Milk should be boiled before it is taken. Ginger or turmeric may be added and the problem goes away.

FAT Unsaturated fat is of two types: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Polyunsaturated fat is not good; it ultimately causes damage. Polyunsaturated fat has multiple double bonds which can become oxidized and cause an increased production of free radicals and increased incidence of colon cancer.

All these vegetable oils are polyunsaturated fatty acids which become very easily oxidized. Oxidation also occurs in fried foods and meats. It is in beef, lamb and chicken. Monounsaturated fat does not get oxidized and these are olive oil and mustard oil. Olive oil increases high density lipoproteins (HDL – good cholesterol) and vegetable oil decreases them. All those are all right. But stay away from polyunsaturated oils.

MEAT How does meat cause problems? In a non-vegetarian diet, there is increased overall mortality, an increased incidence of heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diverticular disease and a higher fracture rate.

A high fracture rate occurs because a high protein diet, a high meat diet, causes change in the pH, makes it slightly acidic and calcium leaches out of the bones. The average loss of calcium in a 65 year-old woman, non-vegetarian is 35% bone loss; in a vegetarian the bone loss is 18%. These are well established published findings. The carnivores, or meat eating animals have an intestinal tract three times the body length, so that the food does not stay in the body for a long time.

Meat has iron, which in excess again causes free radicals in the colon. The intestinal tract in the herbivores is ten to twelve times the body length because it takes a long time for the vegetarian food to be absorbed. The human intestine is just like the herbivores, twelve times the body length.

The hydrochloric acid content in the stomach is very high in meat eating animals. It is twenty times less in herbivores. If you are eating a meat diet, free radicals are being produced, carcinogens are produced, and you don’t have that problem in a vegetarian diet.

MENTAL DISTRESS is directly linked to over production of free radicals. When somebody is under anger, anxiety, tension, or stress, it creates chemicals (cortisone and catecholamines) which react with different organs and cells and ultimately create free radicals and after some time, disease starts occurring wherever the deficiency is in the body. You have to have a balanced function of mind and that comes from meditation.

ALCOHOL is a major producer of free radicals. If you really want the big doors to free radicals, every time you drink alcohol, you have a big boost. It damages the liver, causes cirrhosis, damages the heart, causes myocardiopathy and damages the brain.

The latest research shows that the cell to cell connection in the brain breaks down in alcoholics. You may have heard that a small drink of wine every day saves you from heart disease, but then you will have all these other problems. Basically red wine is much better than white wine, and the beneficial effect of wine is actually due to the red pigment of the grapes which contains bioflavonoids, and not the liquor.

Bioflavonoids have an anti-oxidant property, and they protect the damage caused by the free radicals and they also prevent clotting.

SMOKING causes susceptibility to strokes and cancer of the colon. The problem with smoking is that it creates all these free radicals that damage the lung so that almost every smoker gets bronchitis and emphysema.

Not every smoker gets cancer because it takes more time, and some individuals have the capacity to increase the amount of enzymes which fight free radicals when their system is challenged and others lack it.

FOOD PRESERVATIVES AND PESTICIDES Pesticides kill the pest by creating free radicals, and if you consume them you will be damaged by those free radicals also. That is accumulative damage.

ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION all the exhaust fumes coming from cars cause a lot of pollution and it damages our lungs and other systems.

SUNLIGHT exposure for all those who work on the farm and in the south creates all these problems of aging of the skin.

CHEMOTHERAPY AND RADIATION kill tumour cells by producing too many free radicals. Their effects are toxic because they also damage normal cells.


GHEE Clarified butter, known as ghee, contains the conjugated linoleic acid which has anti-cancer properties. Casein which is a harmful protein is removed by this process. You take the butter, slowly heat it until butter solids precipitate on the top and then you filter it through a cloth and you will have a liquid that can be stored at room temperature.

This is the best combination of different fatty acids for human consumption. Safflower oil and most vegetable oils get oxidized and damage the liver and heart. Clarified butter does not cause this damage.

SESAME OIL which is cold pressed is very powerful. It contains natural antioxidants and when it is cured by heating, the long molecular chains are broken down to shorter chains and become very powerful antioxidants.

When you massage your whole body with sesame oil, apart from the nice effect of massage, you are also introducing antioxidants.

LACTO-VEGETARIAN DIET contains anti-oxidants which protect the body, bioflavonoids which are in fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, a meat diet creates free radicals and carcinogens which will be damaging.

A lacto-vegetarian diet also lowers cholesterol, improves blood pressure and lowers mortality from heart disease and other ailments. It is very good for children. It will cut out a lot of this hyperactivity also. It is a misconception that you have to eat meat to get protein.

CURRY HERBS satisfy the taste, and also have properties to prevent clotting, and absorption of fat and they keep the blood thin. Curry herbs like turmeric, red pepper, nutmeg and cloves have very powerful antioxidant properties. You can get a combination found in any Indian or health food store. You don’t have to use lots; a small amount will take care of it.

RASAYANAS Natural herbal mixtures known as rasayanas, sort of general tonics enhance immunity, retard aging, balance physiology and stimulate over all health.

These compounds come from the herbal flavonoids which are antioxidant and prevent inflammation, allergy, toxicity to the liver, and increase immunity. Research has shown that they prevent metastases and the spread of lung and brain tumours.

Dr. Hari Sharma

Dr. Sharma is Professor of Pathology and Director of the Cancer Prevention and Natural Products Research at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Pathology, and a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is a consultant to the National Institute of Health, Alternative Medicine Section. He has lectured around the world to medical audiences including the World Health Organization. He has published over 100 scientific research articles and has recently published Freedom From Disease, a book about free radical control, based on India's traditional health care system, ayurveda.

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