Could an apple a day do more than keeping the doctor away? That’s basically what the free radical theory of aging is all about. Fun Fact: Hong Kong and Japan have the world’s highest life expectancies at 84 years old (2019). This is actually over a decade higher than the global average. There are many theories about what makes people age and how we can live longer. One focuses on the role of free radicals and antioxidants. There’s no question that free radical molecules attack healthy cells, which can lead to infection, inflammation, and disease. However, this theory argues that free radicals can actually shorten lifespans, while antioxidants can help people to live longer.
Scientists disagree about what causes aging and the best way to fight it. For example, one theory is that the ends of DNA molecules known as “telomeres” are the key. Some scientists claim that preventing the shoestring cap-like chemical compounds from getting shorter can help to prevent serious diseases so people can live longer. This theory is relatively new, while the free radical theory of aging was first started over six decades ago in 1956. Today there’s some debate among experts about whether or not it’s true. So it’s worth taking a closer look.
What Are Free Radicals and Antioxidants?
Today these substances are often mentioned in relation to anti-aging creams and lotions. Free radicals were discovered over a century ago in 1900. So the world has known about the molecules for quite a while. However, it was over half a century later when the free radical-based theory of aging was created.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that are missing 1+ electrons. The scientific definition of free radicals is very technical. The main feature is that they’re missing a molecule so they try to steal/share one with other molecules.
The unstable molecules also have no charges and short life. A human being has up to 20,000 free radicals. The problem is they attack human cells. That doesn’t sound like a good thing but sometimes it is. Free radicals sometimes team up with immune system cells to kill bacteria and tone muscles.
These are all benefits. Sometimes free radicals can help to improve the function of blood vessels/organs. However, the problem is when free radicals start attacking healthy cells willy-nilly. This can be caused by various factors like heart disease, immune system diseases, and cancer.
The problem is the process can cause a chain reaction. When free radicals steal an electron from other molecules this causes that molecule to become unstable.
The good news is that the human body has ways of fighting back. The main method is the immune system, which is the body’s first line of defense against free radicals.
However, on a chemical level, the body uses antioxidants to counter free radicals. They connect to free radicals and help to slow down the damage caused by free radicals. There are different kinds of antioxidants. The body produces some.
However, most antioxidants are from outside sources. For example, you can get them from whole grains, veggies, and fruits. Some examples include leafy greens, berries, and dark chocolate.
Free Radical Theory of Aging
Humans have been searching for the “Fountain of Youth” for thousands of years. In fact, the idea of the healing water dates back to the writings of Herodotus. The Greek author and Father of History wrote about it in the 400s BC.
Since then humans have been searching for ways to fight the signs of aging. It turns out options like wrinkle creams don’t work because they’re mostly cosmetic treatments that aren’t really effective anti-aging products.
An American scientist proposed the free radicals theory of the aging of 1956. Over six centuries later scientists are still debating whether or not it’s a thing. There’s no debate about the role of free radicals and antioxidants in infection, inflammation, illness, etc.
However, this theory takes it a step further and argues that free radicals can actually shorten your lifespan. It’s also argued that antioxidants can cause the opposite effect and help people to live a longer life.
The belief is that over time free radicals cause enough damage to speed up the aging process. This theory doesn’t just claim that antioxidants can help fight off free radicals. It’s argued that they can actually help increase people’s longevity.
The scientific evidence isn’t clear about whether or not this theory is 100% valid. However, some studies show that it might be true. For example, past studies show that boosting the antioxidants in animal diets helps to reduce the aging process among mice and other animals.
There are some problems though. The theory doesn’t fully explain changes that people experience during aging. So it seems that free radicals are only part of the explanation about how people age. For example, it seems that other substances like those “shoestring caps” of DNA molecules are also involved.
Another factor is some recent research shows that sometimes free radicals are helpful for people. Boosting antioxidants too much might also have unwanted results.
Top Ways to Boost Antioxidants
1. Eat high-antioxidant foods
Look for colors like red tomatoes, orange oranges, and green chilies. There are lots of powerful antioxidants in foods high in Vitamins A/C/D/E.
2. Reduce red meat
This is a controversial topic because it turns out red meat itself doesn’t seem to be linked to heart disease. If you eat beef, make sure to go with organic versions with no hormones/antibiotics, and grass-fed for more omega-3 fatty acids.
That said, studies show that world regions with the highest life expectancies tend to limit red meat. Better options include fish/shellfish, and chicken/turkey. Make sure to go with real food.
3. Drink moderately
If you’re going to drink then go with healthy options like white/red wine. Heavy drinking increases the body’s free radicals, which can lead to many issues like liver/kidney disease.
4. Eat more nuts/seeds
These are other foods that are closely linked to long life. There are many options like almonds, cashews, and flax/chia seeds.
5. Limit canned/processed meats
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that these foods are cancerous. This doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer from three strips of bacon or one can of Spam. However, what it does mean is you should limit these meats as much as possible. Real food including organic meats is always the best option.
6. Don’t reuse cooking oils
This causes oxygen to get into them, which increases their free radicals. It’s also better to go with omega-3 oils like coconut/olive or even beef/pork lard versus highly-processed omega-6 oils.
7. Avoid high-glycemic-index (GI) foods
This includes options like white sugar, artificial sweeteners, and refined grains. These options are more likely to cause blood sugar spikes, which often boosts free radicals. There are various low-GI diets like Keto and Atkins. Paleo isn’t technically low-carb but it avoids highly-processed foods, which is critical after learning about the free radical theory of aging.