[ed. note: We’ve been privileged to share with you some “non investment” commentary here from Michael Jorrin, a longtime medical writer who we like to call “Doc Gumshoe” — today he’s got a new piece for us that should help us think skeptically about yet more of the “easy solution” promises people make about health, usually when they’re trying to sell you the latest hot supplement or drug … and, as always, we need to remind you that the opinions from Doc Gumshoe are his own, we’ve done no more than a bit of light editing to prepare his piece for you today. Enjoy!]
Drink your pomegranate juice and eat your blueberries! They’re antioxidants, and antioxidants are good for you, because they combat free radicals (whatever those are) and free radicals are truly evil, because they cause all manner of diseases and are the underlying causes of aging, and if we could eliminate the free radicals, we could live a really long time.
That’s the Received Wisdom, and I won’t argue with it, because there’s certainly an element of truth there. How large or important that element of truth is remains to be seen. Let’s take this catechism one bit at a time.
Free Radicals: What Are They, Anyway?
First, what are free radicals? They are not bomb-throwers who have evaded prison, but small ionized chemical entities that are avid to combine with whatever they can latch on to. Consider saltpeter, chemical name potassium nitrate, chemical formula KNO3… Saltpeter is used as a food preservative, particularly in cured meats, and supposedly was put into the food of boys in boarding school, soldiers, and other young libidinous males in order to curb their natural instincts. When potassium nitrate enters solution, such as the human bloodstream, it immediately ionizes, meaning that the potassium part and the nitrate part swim around independently. The potassium ion has an extra electron in its outer shell, so it is K+, and the nitrate part is missing that outer electron, so it is NO3 –. The NO3 – ion is a free radical, and it seeks to combine with other entities from which it can grab that missing electron.
Saltpeter is just a single example of the kinds of substances that we’re exposed to that can create free radicals. All kinds of substances can lead to free radical formation – anything that can release ionized oxygen, hydroxyl, hydrogen peroxide, or other oxidizing ions. The worst offender is cigarette smoke, and there are many more in our environment. In the process of swiping electrons, free radicals can affect and perhaps damage human cells, including their DNA. If the damaged cells merely perish, that’s no big deal – cells die all the time and are replaced by new, healthy cells. But if cellular DNA is damaged, the successor cells themselves may be damaged or even cancerous. That’s the chief threat posed by free radicals.
What Do These Wonderful Antioxidants Really Do?
Antioxidants counteract the effects of free radicals by offering themselves up as targets, sparing some of the human cells that the free radicals might otherwise have damaged. There are lots of antioxidants in the food we eat, not just pome