Free radicals are highly reactive, short-lived molecules that, when not balanced by antioxidants, can have an adverse affect on body systems, triggering a number of human diseases as well as aging. Aging is caused by free radical damage called oxidative stress that causes damage to our cell powerhouses called the mitochondria.
Mitochondria produce ‘packages’ of energy in the form of the molecule ‘ATP.’ In the process of energy production, single electrons escape from the packages and react with oxygen molecules to form free radicals such as peroxide and superoxide. Free can also sometimes created by the body’s immune system to neutralize viruses and bacteria. Eating large amounts of polyunsaturated vegetable oils and environmental factors, such as pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and herbicides can also cause the production of free radicals.
Free radicals react with everything and can wreak havoc on the body; this is why they are called ‘reactive oxygen species.’ These free radicals then attack stable molecules, resulting in the formation of more free radicals — a chain reaction that ultimately results in the disruption of a living cell. Excessive levels of these reactive oxygen species cause damage to the mitochondria themselves.
How diet and nutrition can prevent damage from free radicals
Free radicals can be cleaned up by antioxidants. Antioxidants are molecules, which have an extra electron to “give” to the free radical, thereby neutralizing, or making it chemically stable. Once the free radical is stabilized, it no longer causes damage, and the chain of destruction is broken.
A lack of antioxidants in the body means more oxidative damage from free radicals. One way to treat this type of damage is to increase the amount of antioxidants available in the body. This is why it’s important to eat your veggies.
Vegetables, as well as fruit, chocolate, tea and various other foods contain antioxidants, which will help prevent damage free radicals can cause.
When it comes to aging, however, eating more antioxidants may not have much of an effect on longevity, as some studies have shown. One reason may be that the antioxidants we eat may not actually reach their target and enter into the mitochondria that need them.
This is where the ketogenic diet comes in. This way of eating seems to be having a strikingly positive effect on some neurological conditions, contradicting virtually every bit of nutritional advice given over the last 30 years.
A growing number of studies seem to suggest that a ketogenic diet and its effects on mitochondrial function may be the target for slowing the aging process. The ketogenic diet:
• Increases mitochondrial numbers.
• Increases the levels of glutathione within mitochondria.
• Reduces levels of reactive oxygen species both through increasing antioxidant levels and through an uncoupling mechanism via a protein found on the inner mitochondrial membrane.
• Reduces baseline blood sugar levels which reduces the rates of glycation and the formation of advanced glycation end products, substances generated by blood sugar, which increase tissue damage and aging.
• Low carb diets in general reduce triglycerides, which are fatty acids in the blood stream. Elevated triglycerides are markers for increases heart disease risk and inflammation.
Emerging studies also point to the importance of looking at the underlying biochemistry when recommending a ‘healthy’ diet and that we might need to start moving away from focusing on single foods.
In the absence of carbohydrates, eating large amounts of fat can reduce the risk for heart disease. However, eating a very large amount of fat in addition to carbohydrates can have the opposite effect, seriously elevating one’s risk for heart disease.
Betty Murray, CN, IFMCP, CHC is a Certified Nutritionist & Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner with the Institute for Functional Medicine, founder of the Dallas-based functional medicine clinic Living Well Dallas and Executive Director of the the Functional Medicine Association of North Texas. A master of the biochemistry of the body, Betty teaches her clients how to utilize nutrition for autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders, MTHFR and weight loss. You can find her book “Cleanse: Detox Your Body, Mind & Spirit” on Amazon here.
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