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From the April 15th, 1996 issue of Smart Drug News [v4n10]. Copyright (c) 1996. All rights reserved.

What are Free Radicals?

Molecules are composed of atoms bonded together. This bonding process is accomplished by the sharing of electrons. When two atoms come together and their electrons pair up, a bond is created.

It is a general principle of quantum chemistry that only two electrons can exist in one bond. Specifically, each electron must have opposite “spin“ from the other. Like male and female animals, “up“ electrons pair up with “down“ electrons, and bonds are created. Paired electrons are quite stable; nearly 100% of all electrons in the human body exist in a paired state.

When a bond is broken (by radiation, for example), the electrons can stay together (i.e., both go to one of the atoms and the other atom gets none) or they can split up (one electron goes to each atom). If they stay together, the molecular fragments are called ions, and they are electrically charged (the atom with the electrons is negatively charged and the one without the electrons is positively charged). A good example of this is sodium chloride (salt) which splits up into a chloride anion (Cl–) and a sodium cation (Na+).

If the electrons split up, the atoms are free radicals (molecules with an unpaired electron). The unpaired electrons are highly energetic and seek out other electrons with which to pair and stealing them in the process. This electron “rip off“ is what makes free radicals both useful and dangerous.

Since most electrons exist in a paired state, free radicals often end up reacting with paired electrons. When they do so, one of the electrons pairs with the (former) free radical and the “odd electron out“ becomes another free radical (odd plus even equals odd). Only when a free radical pairs up with another free radical is the free radical terminated (odd plus odd equals even).

Antioxidants (also known as free radical scavengers) function by offering easy electron targets for free radicals. In absorbing a free radical, antioxidants “trap“ (de-energize or stabilize) the lone free-radical electron and make it stable enough to be transported to an enzyme which combines two stabilized free radicals together to neutralize both. ——SWF