In our bodies, several processes can generate free radicals, including exposure to ultraviolet radiation in sunlight, exposure to x-rays, and some reactions that occur during normal metabolic processes. Free radicals may have positive, negative, or zero charge. With some exceptions, the unpaired electrons cause radicals to be highly chemically reactive. Certain harmful substances, such as carbon tetrachloride (a solvent used in dry cleaning), also give rise to free radicals when they participate in metabolic reactions in the body. Among the many disorders, diseases, and conditions linked to oxygen-derived free radicals are cancer, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer disease, emphysema, diabetes mellitus, cataracts, macular degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis, and deterioration associated with aging.
Antioxidants work to protect lipids from peroxidation by radicals. Antioxidants are effective because they are willing to give up their own electrons to free radicals. Consuming more antioxidants—substances that inactivate oxygen-derived free radicals—is thought to slow the pace of damage caused by free radicals. Important dietary antioxidants include selenium, zinc, beta-carotene, and vitamins C and E.
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