When we think of rust, we picture a reddish-brown, worn-out strip of metal that’s been left out in the rain for too long. However, we don’t usually think of our own cells rusting inside us. Admittedly, that statement may seem a little misleading, but both iron and our cells break down in a process called oxidation. After that process, iron turns into rust so it's not too much of a stretch to conclude that our cells undergo their own version of rusting as well. But what exactly is the process of oxidation and how do our cells undergo it?
Oxidation makes up half of a process called oxidation-reduction reactions, also known as redox reactions. Redox refers to the transfer of electrons between molecules, ions, and atoms in a chemical reaction found everywhere from combustion to photosynthesis.
Despite its misleading name, reduction occurs when something gains electrons while oxidation is the loss of electrons. To remember this, think of the acronym, LEO the lion says GER. LEO stands for Lose Electrons and Oxidation and GER stands for Gain Electrons: Reduction.
When iron rusts, iron and oxygen turn into iron (III) oxide, a flaky compound vulnerable to further corrosion. In our bodies, however, the process is slightly more complex.
Every day, we face different forms of oxidative stresses such as smoke, sunlight, radiation, unhealthy dietary choices, and intensive exercise. Under normal circumstances, the atoms in our cells have a stable structure, but these stresses cause them to produce excessive oxygen that contains waste products and free radicals. If these waste products overwhelm the body's ability to control them, they begin to attack other cells. Free radicals are atoms or molecules that are short an electron and are therefore highly unstable. To stabilize themselves, they attempt to steal electrons from healthy cells. If successful, the healthy cell begins to break down from the loss of an electron. As more free radicals arrive to steal more electrons and continue to damage the cell over time, this may cause a variety of ailments from Alzheimer's to a weakened immune system to cancer to issues with blood vessels.
While there's no way to avoid all oxidative stresses, we can increase our body's natural ability to produce antioxidants because antioxidants can give up electrons to free radicals without damaging themselves or becoming free radicals. To do so, people should wear sunscreen, eat healthy diets, and exercise regularly.
Lobo, V., Patil, A., Phatak, A., & Chandra, N. (2010, July). Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249911/.
Dix, M. (2018, September 29). Oxidative Stress: Definition, Effects on the Body, and Prevention. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/oxidative-stress.
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Written in 2020