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Free Radicals, Antioxidants, & The Immune System
Free radicals operate at the cellular level and are a big, big deal. Don’t underestimate them.
In the 1940’s we were scarcely aware of free radicals or antioxidants. Extensive research didn’t occur until after 1957 when the government started putting more money into scientific research and the development of the electron microscope. It finally allowed scientists to see the inner workings of a cell. Today there are nearly 40,000 studies on free radicals and 50,000 on antioxidants with more appearing everyday.
Reference: Dr. Ralph Moss

We’re made up of trillions of cells. They come together to form tissues, and tissues come together to form organs. The free radical/antioxidant story couldn’t really be told until cellular biology matured as a science, which wasn’t all that long ago. What happens within these cells may determine how long you live, and whether you live your life fully or with the burden of disease.

A Long Life Need Not Be A Curse
“Although people are living longer, too many are plagued by chronic diseases that not only hamper their ability to make the most of these added years, but sometimes even seem to make them a curse. A longer life doesn’t have to be this way…” Dr. Lester Packer

Free Radicals Cause Disease And Contribute To Aging
“Scientists now believe that free radicals are causal factors in nearly every known disease, from heart disease to arthritis to cancer to cataracts. In fact, free radicals are a major culprit in the aging process itself.” Dr. Lester Packer

Dr. John Smythies says, “It can now be taken as fact that toxic reactive oxygen species (free radicals) play a significant role in many acute and chronic diseases such as inflammation, coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and many more.”

A Free Radical Is A Single Electron Looking For A Mate
Cells have smaller units called atoms. Within the atom is a nucleus surrounded by pairs of electrons. Dr. Anthony Cichoke (MD) puts it this way: “Unlike a stable molecule in which every atom is ringed by pairs of electrons, free radicals carry an unmated electron that desperately wants to pair up with another. By snaring an electron from a neighboring molecule (which then makes that molecule a free radical), it can set off a chain reaction that wrecks havoc on cells.”

Free Radicals Are Everywhere
Every “single” electron is looking for a “mate”. It will break up a pair of electrons (their natural state) to get one. When it breaks up another “pair”, the “single” of that “pair” will become the free radical continuing the chain reaction. This process damages cell structures and DNA. This is devastating to a cell. Free radicals are constantly forming everywhere in the body at an astonishing rate.

10,000 Hits Per Cell Per Day
Bruce Ames, a well-known scientist in the field of antioxidants, estimates that just one cell in the human body is hit about 10,000 times a day by a free radical. If that’s multiplied by the trillions of cells in the body the magnitude of this activity is tremendous. 

Free Radical Proliferation
Oxygen is the basis for the formation of free radicals. We require large amounts of it for metabolism, which is breaking down nutrients for growth and energy. This energy is essential for such processes as breathing, thinking, digesting your food and having a beating heart. This is natural. The body and immune system uses some free radicals in a positive way.

Additional free radicals can be caused by environmental sources like tobacco smoke, oil fumes, chemicals, pollutants, radiation, the sun or ozone. Disease creates free radicals. So does exercise.

Lack Of Antioxidants
Free radical proliferation can also be caused by a lack of antioxidants in the diet, or the inability of the body to produce enough of them.

Antioxidants To The Rescue
“Suppose that I told you there was a pill that would keep your heart strong, your mind sharp, and your body youthful well into your seventies, eighties, nineties, and even beyond? Suppose that I told you there was a pill that could extend your life and improve your sex life? Suppose I told you there was a pill that could prevent cancer? How about a pill that could keep your skin supple and wrinkle-free…I’m talking about antioxidants, a family of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that I have been studying for the better part of my seventy years.” Dr. Lester Packer, The Antioxidant Miracle

Some antioxidants are produced by the body and others must be provided through food or supplements. There are hundreds of antioxidants.

Antioxidants Stop Free Radicals Through Self Sacrifice
When an antioxidant encounters a free radical it freely gives up an electron of its own which satisfies the free radical and stops the out of control damage. This makes the antioxidant a free radical because it’s now an electron short. However, the chain reaction is stopped because the newly created free radical made from the antioxidant is very weak and unlikely to do further harm.

Different Categories of Antioxidants
According to Dr. Lester Packer, up until recently, each antioxidant was thought to work independently of the others. They know now that’s not true. They work together. He has labeled some of them “network antioxidants”. What makes network antioxidants special is that they can greatly enhance the power of and reconstitute one another. As a result, they’re particularly effective.

Network Antioxidants
“Although there are literally hundreds of antioxidants, only five appear to be network antioxidants: Vitamins C and E, glutathione, lipoic acid and CoQ10. Vitamins C and E are not produced in the body but must be obtained through food. Glutathione, lipoic acid, and CoQ10 are produced by the body, but levels of these antioxidants decline as we age. That is why we need to supplement all of them.” Dr. Lester Packer Dr. Packer also says the best way to supplement glutathione, the cell’s primary antioxidant, is usually through the use of lipoic acid, not necessarily glutathione itself.

Non-Network Antioxidants Are Powerful Too
He goes on to say that some non-network antioxidants and even some things that aren’t antioxidants support members of the “network”. These include members of the flavonoid family of which there are several thousand plant based chemicals (phytochemicals).

These might include fruits, vegetables, and beverages like green tea and red wine. Ginko Biloba and Grape Seed Extract are in the flavonoid family. If you’re familiar with Pycnogenol, Grape Seed Extract has been shown, according to Dr. Ralph Moss, to be more potent. Grape Seed has a higher level of antioxidants; 92%-95% bioflavonoids compared to 85%.

Green and Black teas have a higher level of antioxidant activity than any vegetable. Although all forms (Black, Green, Oolong) have health benefits, the polyphenols in green tea are believed to be more potent. Reference: Dr. Ralph Moss, Dr. Lester Packer, Dr. John Smythies

Selenium is an example of a mineral that supports the network. There are many, many others that don’t support the network but work on their own to reduce the free radical load. An example of these would be carotenoids. Carotenoids are the coloring factor in deep green vegetables and orange, yellow and brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Dr. Packer calls these antioxidant “helpers”.

Some Specific Examples of Antioxidant Use In Preventing Disease
Are you getting sick more often than you use to? Tufts University researchers found that antioxidants can rejuvenate an aging immune system.

Do you think you have “bad” genes? Antioxidants can turn off “bad” genes and reduce the risk of hereditary diseases. Note: Antioxidants are a factor in preventing the mutation of gene p53, the most important tumor suppressing gene. Reference: Dr. Ralph Moss

Are you not as “sharp” as you used to be? Antioxidants can prevent and reverse age-related memory loss and memory problems. The brain is particularly vulnerable to free radical damage.

How about ADD? Growing evidence shows that antioxidants can improve concentration and focus.

Aches and pains? Antioxidants can relieve symptoms of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.

How about brown spots and sun damaged skin? Antioxidants can prevent and even erase these signs of aging and protect against skin cancer.

Higher risk for heart disease? Antioxidants like E and CoQ10 are being used successfully to treat heart disease.
[Reference: The Antioxidant Miracle by Dr. Lester Packer]

Dying Young
“More than 70% of Americans will die prematurely from diseases caused by or compounded by deficiencies of the antioxidant network.” Dr. Lester Packer

Improve Your Diet
The National Cancer Institute recommends eating 5 one-half cup portions of fruits and vegetables per day. (Some researches seem to feel that this is the most important thing the NCI has ever done.) According to Dr. Ralph Moss and others this may not be enough.

However, most people don’t get even that much and children are typically getting even less. A diet change is an excellent idea. However, can you even eat enough to get optimal amounts?

Authorities say you’d have to eat 100 pounds of broiled liver or 125 tablespoons of peanut oil to get 500 I.U. of vitamin E. And, it takes 7 pounds of spinach to equal just 1 milligram of lipoic acid.

Use Antioxidants As A Team, Not Singularly
The current thinking is that antioxidants should be used together in a well researched way, not singularly. Dr. Lester Packer states, “Antioxidants are meant to work together, and in almost every circumstance, combinations of antioxidants have been proven to be more effective than single antioxidants.”

Dr. John Smythies in his book, Every Person’s Guide to Antioxidants, states, “Antioxidants should not be given singly because of the strong evidence of their team action. Because overloading with one may upset this delicate balance and lead to bad results, one should be skeptical about single antioxidants for sale on store shelves. The evidence clearly shows that antioxidants should not be consumed singly but only as well balanced mixtures of many antioxidants.”

Antioxidants and Cancer
Dr. Lester Packer states in his book, The Antioxidant Miracle, that cancer is not inevitable and that in most cases can be prevented. One contributing factor is certainly a positive lifestyle change. Another is a rich use of antioxidants through diet and supplements. More specifically he states that:

Free radical damage to DNA, the genetic material within every cell, can cause a cell to mutate and divide erratically. Antioxidants protect DNA.

Antioxidants regulate genes. Antioxidants can turn on and off genes that regulate cell growth. This can have a profoundly beneficial effect on people who are at higher risk due to family history.

Antioxidants support the detoxification system through the boosting of glutathione. Glutathione has the ability to turn on a process called apoptosis in which “bad” cells will self-destruct.

Antioxidants boost immune function. “If an immune system is vigorous, it should be able to take out cancer cells before they cause damage.”

Antioxidants and Immune Function
The immune system is also subject to free radical damage. Immune cells themselves, like T-cells, NK cells and T- helper cells can suffer from free radical damage which will suppress their activity.

Free Radicals Knock Out Cytokine Pathways
According to Dr. Jesse Stoff, free radicals have the ability to knock out cytokine pathways (communication pathways) between cells of the immune system. This is especially valid as a result of radiation which creates the hydroxyl radical, the most vicious of free radicals. The immune system responds according to the cytokine environment. The immune cells don’t operate without that information.

Macrophage Damages Itself Without Antioxidants
The macrophage, a cell of the immune system, releases the free radical nitric oxide to destroy bacteria, parasites and viruses. If it’s over produced, or the antioxidant balance is low, the nitric oxide will turn and damage the macrophage itself thereby impairing its ability to fight off invaders. Antioxidants stop this from happening and still allow the macrophage to do its job.

Low Glutathione Levels A Sure Sign Of Immune Depletion
Glutathione supplementation (Dr. Lester Packer suggests using alpha lipoic acid as glutathione itself is difficult to absorb) supports immune system cells of older people but doesn’t appear to have much effect on the immune cells of younger people. [As a general statement, one would assume the glutathione levels in younger people would be adequate.] However, glutathione depletion will reduce immune function at any age. “Low levels of glutathione in the body are almost always a sign of illness, especially of poor immune function.” Dr. Jesse Stoff

“As we age, there is a measurable drop in immune function, especially by our seventh and eighth decades. Although we may produce as many T-cells and B-cells as we did before, they do not work as well.” Dr. Lester Packer 

As a general statement, if this is the case, and our systems are actually producing immune cells in the same numbers when we get older as it did in earlier years, then, obviously other detrimental factors must be at work.
See also Immune 101

Fast Facts
  • Free radicals are bad. They cause cell mutations, damage immune function, cause wrinkles and aging and are a contributing cause behind many diseases including cancer, heart disease, arthritis, alzheimers, parkinson’s, and others. Free radical damage is a factor behind almost every known disease according to some researchers

  • Free radicals are caused by the body’s own natural processes. Free radical excesses are further created from the addition of things like toxins or radiation or poor digestive function. Disease tends to create free radicals. We are constantly creating free radicals at an astonishing speed. 

  • Relating to the immune system specifically, free radicals damage immune cells and wipe out cytokine (communication) pathways.

  • The antidote to free radicals is the antioxidant. We make some antioxidants and some are traditionally supplied in the diet (fruits, vegetables). Environmental influences have increased the need well beyond what our bodies are capable of producing, and even beyond diet – as in can you actually eat 7 pounds of spinach to get 1mg. of alpha lipoic acid?

  • Antioxidants work best together not singularly.