Free radicals are much-maligned molecules, blamed for causing many of the diseases we suffer from and even the aging process itself. We are regularly reminded of this in the fruit and vegetable isle at the supermarket and by supplement brands promoting antioxidants to counter the effect of free radicals.
But dig a little deeper and you will discover that free radicals have an interesting little secret. It turns out that we need free radicals to be healthy. Free radicals are harnessed by our cells to send messages around the cell and between cells. Our immune system uses free radicals as part of its initial immune process (imagine free radical “bullets” being fired at an intruder) to slow the bugs down while the rest of our immune system jumps into action to fight off the infection.
It turns out, for optimal health that we need to live in a “free radical goldilocks zone.” Too many free radicals and we shift into something called oxidative stress and if that persists for too long then we are on track to get a disease. But, if we have too few free radicals then it is equally harmful as our body loses the ability to mount a healthy immune response or to transmit messages that might notify the cell that something has gone wrong triggering a process where the cell removes itself for the health of the tissues that surround it.
However, science is now telling us to go a little easy on antioxidants and not over do it. The clues have been there for a long time. A large study many years ago found that smokers, who create a burden of oxidative stress in their body with every puff, that took a vitamin E supplement had an increased risk of death. In another study, older adults that took antioxidants alongside exercise didn’t get the same level of muscle growth as their peers who went to the gym without taking antioxidants. In each case the antioxidants interfered with the healthy free radical signalling process creating a problem larger than the one it was aiming to solve.
So how do we deal with the challenge of reducing oxidative stress whilst not over doing it and causing ourselves a serious health problem? Two strategies are coming to the fore. First, if you are going to take an antioxidant then take natural antioxidants that are derived from our diet such as curcumin, Fisetin or pterostilbene. These bioactive molecules support the natural levels of antioxidants that our cells make to balance the levels of free radicals in our cells to keep us in the “goldilocks zone” and also have secondary health benefits, such as Curcumin, which is well known to reduce inflammation; Fisetin, which is becoming well known as a senolytic, a molecule that helps remove senescent cells from the body; and pterostilbene, a molecule that activates key genes responsible for cellular repair and energy generation.
The second strategy and is one of the most promising I have seen for a long time is taking a molecule called Hobamine (also known as 2-HOBA). Hobamine is an extract from the humble Himalayan Tartary buckwheat. It is an interesting molecule that protects our cells from the downstream effects of free radicals whilst leaving the healthy free radicals alone to do their work. How Hobamine delivers its health benefits is fascinating. It is a member of a new class of natural molecules called reactive carbonyl scavengers. While that is a bit of a mouthful you could also call it an antioxidant 3.0 or a smart antioxidant. It is so cutting edge that it is hard to find in most supplements.