What Are Free Radicals and How Do They Affect the Body?

Electrons are the particles orbiting the center of the atom.. goktugg/Getty Images

Free radicals are damaged atoms in your cells that may be linked to certain diseases, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, heart disease, cancer, PTSD and Gulf War illness. They're also believed to be part of the aging process.

Atoms are made up of tiny particles, including protons and electrons. Atoms and the molecules they make up are most stable when their electrons come in pairs, but certain types of damage can reduce the number and leave electrons unpaired, unbalancing the molecule.

The molecule then travels around your body in search of an electron to steal in order to balance itself. In doing so, it may damage other molecules or even create another free radical.

We all have some free radicals in our body, as they result from the metabolism of oxygen and the breakdown of food. At high levels, however, they may become destructive and put your body into a state called oxidative stress. Your free-radical level may rise due to things such as air pollution, smoking cigarettes, and a poor diet.

Substances called antioxidants are believed to help balance free radicals.

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