Free Radical Theory and Longevity

Life depends upon the proper combination of oxygen with food nutrients to create and release energy. It is through this process that we see the never-ending interplay between creative/nutritive forces and destructive/metabolic heat forces, echoing back to the eternal ideas of Yin and Yang, and Vata, Pitta and Kapha.

Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that contain an odd number of electrons. These dangerous chemicals can damage cells, cell membrane surfaces and even our genetic material (DNA). If you imagine your body as a house, you can think of free radicals as iron ping pong balls bouncing around inside, knocking over lamps, denting the furniture, and chipping the paint on the walls.  However, free radicals are not always completely bad. Your body generates these molecules as by-products when your immune system destroys bacteria, viruses and other foreign substances. Up to 5% of the oxygen we consume is transformed into free radicals (Reiter et al., 1995).

The free radical called superoxide is the most reactive of all these chemicals. Your body uses a naturally occurring enzyme called SOD (superoxide dismutase) to destroy (quench) this reactive superoxide, thus protecting you from the millions of free radical “hits” each of your cells endures each second of your life. This quenching process leads to the production of hydrogen peroxide, which your body consequently eliminates with another antioxidant enzyme called catalase (CAT). These antioxidants are different from the well-known vitamin antioxidants (A, C and E) in that they are synthesized by cells rather than supplied from without. Vitamins are cofactors (or coenzymes) which aid enzyme functioning. Other important cellular antioxidants are glutathione peroxidase, methionine reductase and superoxide dismutase (SOD).

This sort of free radical damage is believed to be a primary cause of aging, especially when it affects nerve cells.  Scientists can measure the levels of another chemical called malondialdehyde (MDA), a product of lipid peroxidation, to determine the extent of cell membrane damage.

The authors of the ground-breaking book Antioxidant Adaptation: Its Role in Free Radical Pathology, propose a four-stage process of bodily self-defense. In stage one we are healthy, but inundated by chemicals from our air, water, and food supplies. Eventually our defenses give out, and we begin to suffer ill health, indicating a decline into stage two.  It becomes more difficult to stay healthy, we are more susceptible to infection, allergy and stress, and our energy levels decrease.  Then we get to stage three, where we are in the midst of a disease process and suffer from symptoms on a daily basis. In stage four tissue, destruction continues to the point where we become susceptible to increased aging processes and serious diseases like cancer (Levine and Kidd, 1986).

We can reduce free radical damage by simply maintaining high antioxidant levels.  This is accomplished easily by following a healthy diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, and avoiding unhealthy foods like low quality fats and oils and stale food, which can contribute to the generation of free radicals, such a lipid peroxides (LPO).  To quickly build up your body’s supply of the four major cellular antioxidants, I recommend wheat sprouts (see our detailed description in the herb section), which are especially rich in SOD, glutathione peroxidase, catalase and methionine reductase.

One of the common misunderstandings I encounter daily in my clinic is thinking that individual antioxidants are panaceas. If you imagine a cell undergoing excessive free radical damage as a house on fire, then antioxidants are like giants who can dump water on the fire. Therefore, it would logically follow that a single giant with a big water bucket could handle the entire problem. This is why people sometimes prefer to take mega-doses of individual vitamins. Unfortunately, the process of quenching free radicals is more like a bucket brigade. Many medium-sized people (moderate amounts of numerous antioxidants) will quench the fire more effectively and more quickly. This is very similar to what we get when we formulate herbs or simply eat diets high in fresh fruits and vegetables. I like to make this clear by describing the story of how computer scientists have labored for years to create the world’s most powerful super-computers, a single machine with the maximum computing power. While super-computers are useful, they pale in comparison to the results of hooking up lots of “dumber” computer together. We call this the internet.

Research Highlights

• A controlled clinical trial treated elderly senile patients with a cordyceps mushroom extract.  The subjects’ levels of SOD were markedly lower than in younger patients, while levels of a free radical known as MDA were higher. The treatment significantly increased the SOD activity and significantly decreased MDA levels. Numerous symptoms declined, including dizziness, leg weakness, frequent urination and coldness (Zhang ZJ et al., 1997).

• In a single blind clinical trial of 45 elderly males who exhibited signs of aging (Kidney Yang deficiency), subjects were treated for three months with TCM tonics. Several immune parameters increased significantly, as did levels of plasma adrenocortical hormone (ACTH), testosterone (T) and cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP).  Blood levels of SOD also increased while LPO levels decreased. These results showed the herbs increased antioxidant levels and endocrine function (Yin GY, et al., 1995).

• In another single blind clinical trial, 71 elderly patients were treated with two different forms of American ginseng root in an alcohol base.  The blood cell SOD activity and SOD/LPO ratio increased remarkably, while blood levels of LPO decreased significantly in both groups. A calculation of functional physiological age showed that aging reversed by an average of about eight months (Cui and Chen, 1991).

• In one study, researchers selected 80 men between the ages of 60 and 80 years with no overt disease who exhibited signs and symptoms of Kidney Yin deficiency.  They administered a Yin tonic formula to 50 participants, and a placebo to the remaining 30. Blood samples were taken before and after the treatment and were measured for levels of LPO, SOD, glutathione peroxidase (GP), and several hormones, including testosterone. For purposes of comparison, they performed the same tests on blood samples from 33 men in their 20’s.  Prior to treatment, subjects had elevated levels of LPO and female hormones, and reduced levels of SOD, GP and testosterone. After treatment for five weeks, there was a “remarkable” reduction of LPO and estrogen, and an increase in SOD and testosterone. Researchers concluded that the tonic retarded the aging process (Wang XM and Xie ZF, 1992).