Free-radicals are often made to be practically villainous when it comes to our health - and understandably so, with all the negative effects they have on our body over time. But have you ever considered the positive effects of free radicals on our body?
The thing is, free radicals are made in our body to serve various functions; it’s when they are in excess that they begin to cause damage. As surprising as it may sound, these free radicals, which are infamous for causing cellular damage, actually play a role in the process of building the body’s tissues (when produced in the right amounts) .
We understand that looking at free radicals from this lens (for a change) can give rise to quite a few questions, like ‘what functions could free radicals possibly have?’ and ‘how do free radicals help build muscle?’ - so, we’ll answer them for you (with the help of scientific research)!
Let’s start with the basics:
What are free radicals?
Free radicals are highly reactive atoms that are produced as a by-product of normal metabolic processes (such as breathing, digesting food, etc.), or are produced when molecules in our body interact with the environment through pollution, sunlight, and more .
They are called free ‘radicals’ because they are unstable in nature (because they have unpaired electrons) and are constantly looking to become stable. To do so, they steal electrons from nearby molecules, creating further unstable, reactive atoms (this is what we refer to as free radical damage) and starting a chain reaction .
But if they are harmful, why are free radicals produced in our body in the first place?
Despite their ability to cause damage, free radicals are actually generated for a bunch of reasons. One of them is that they are signalling molecules ; they allow cells to interact with one another, enabling many processes within our body such as cell metabolism, memory formation, etc .
Apart from this, free radicals, due to their reactive nature, are an important part of our immune system (very handy at killing microbes) . They also influence a wide range of physiological processes (through their reactions and signalling ability), including regulating our blood flow, enabling muscle force production and tissue repair, and adapting our muscles to the intensity of exercise and training [6, 7, 8].
Which brings us to -
How free radicals help us build muscle
Our body requires more energy to perform exercise (compared to when it’s at rest) - this need leads to the activation of a host of functions in the body, which include releasing adrenaline (to elevate blood flow), and an increase in our metabolic processes [9, 10, 11, 12]. All this releases a bunch of free radicals as a by-product [13, 14, 15, 16].
Interestingly, these extra free radicals cause mild damage, leading to tiny tears in our muscles, which, in turn, trigger the immune system to repair them by building new muscle tissues. (This is why it’s recommended to take protein supplements post exercise, so our body has the amino acids to repair the damage and build new muscles) [17, 18, 19, 20].
So, when do free radicals become a potential issue?
It’s when we end up producing more free radicals than required (due to intense exercise and/or other factors, including but not limited to sun damage, smoking, pollution, unhealthy diet, etc.), that free radicals can cause the damage (like cellular damage and, ultimately, skin ageing, etc.) that they’re infamous for.
However, these negative effects can be controlled, by neutralising the excess free radicals with the help of antioxidants .
What are antioxidants and how do they help?
Antioxidants are molecules that neutralise free radicals (by donating their electrons), reducing their foreseeable damaging effects. Our body has antioxidant reserves; the body taps into these reserves to channel its antioxidants towards neutralising the excess numbers of free radicals .
Having said that, just as we can have too many free radicals, there also is such a thing as too many antioxidants. Since antioxidants can be both made in the body and consumed through food, it is possible to consume more antioxidants than necessary - this can have a negative effect on the functioning of the free radicals that are actually required .
Can antioxidants hamper our performance and functioning?
A straightforward answer: no, not when antioxidants are present in the right amount.
The argument of whether antioxidants can affect the functions of free radicals or not, mainly rests on the amount of antioxidants consumed. An increasing number of studies indicate that chronic antioxidant supplementation (excess supplementation, over a long period of time) may be harmful . For instance, high doses of antioxidant supplements (like 1000 mg of vitamin C and 400 IU of vitamin E taken together) have been shown to delay exercise recovery, affect our insulin sensitivity, impede training adaptations (like our muscles increasing their consumption of glucose, during exercise, for fuel) and even increase mortality [23, 24, 25].
All of this happens because excess antioxidants can, over time, even impair the production of free radicals (in addition to neutralising them) .
How can we maintain a balance between free radicals and antioxidants?
It’s a good idea to stick to the recommended 4-5 servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables every day. Those who struggle with consuming them through their food may find supplementation necessary - in this case, the doses should be limited to the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of each vitamin/mineral that’s being supplemented (for their antioxidant potential). For example, a dose of 80 mg and 65 mg of vitamin C for men and women, respectively, along with 10 mg of vitamin E per day, is great for post-workout recovery (unless a larger dose is prescribed by a healthcare professional) .
In essence, free radicals aren’t that bad after all - and antioxidants aren’t that great when consumed in huge amounts! What’s important, ultimately, is a good balance of both in our body.
This information may be news to many, especially in the fitness space, where antioxidants are commonly promoted for post-workout recovery. If you know others who might find this surprising, it’s a good time to share it with them :)
If you have any questions, please share them with us in the comments below; we would love to answer them for you!