Richard G. Petty, MD

Free Radicals, Aging and Small Hairless Creatures

I’m accused of many things.

Apart from the oft-repeated falsehood that I was the inspiration for Hugh Laurie’s brilliant characterization of the cranky Dr. Gregory House (I definitely was not!), I have been accused of having a fixation with mole rats. Well, that one is partly true: they are fascinating little creatures.

But let me start at the beginning. Over the last three decades, free radicals have entered the national vocabulary. In the 1983 James Bond movie, Never Say Never Again Edward Fox orders Sean Connery to enroll in a health clinic in order to "eliminate all those free radicals."

Free radicals are found in nature: they can be derived from combustion and some other chemical reactions and they are generated in the atmosphere by the action of ultraviolet radiation with chlorofluorocarbons. But most found in the human body don’t come from the environment: they are generated by biological processes. The majority are extremely short lived, but a few special types can hang around for hours.

An excess of free radicals has been linked to an array of illnesses, including:
Some cancers
Diabetic vascular disease
Parkinson’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease
Age-related changes in the skin
Macular degeneration

This list just names a few: many other illnesses have been laid at the door of free radicals. You will often see people talking about “oxidative stress,” to describe the damage done by an excess of free radicals. There is a theory that normal aging may be a result of the gradual increase in the production of free radicals in the body

There is something to all this: I did some research on the role of free radicals in diabetic vascular disease in the 1980s, and made some interesting discoveries. It has recently been shown that an excess of free radicals in the wrong place can play a part in generating insulin resistance.

The trouble – as with so many apparently simple ideas – is that many of the popular concepts about free radicals are over-stated or even wrong.

We first have to ask ourselves, “If free radicals are so bad, then why does the body produce them at all?”

The answer is that free radicals play a crucial role in a number of important biological processes, including the killing of bacteria by a group of white cells known as granulocytes. They are also thought to be key cancer killers and prime mediators of normal communication between cells.

Yet they have been pilloried: thought to be the key to so many illnesses when, in fact, they are intimately involved in normal biological processes: if you had no free radicals you would probably die quickly and unpleasantly. We know that because there is a group of rare, fatal illnesses in which children cannot generate free radicals.

Rather than focusing on ways to eliminate free radicals, we should be dealing with ways to balance them.

Our bodies are loaded with sets of enzymes whose task is to mop up excessive numbers of free radicals. The most important of these are superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase, glutathione reductase and catalase.

When you see an advert or article extolling the virtues of some product because it abolishes free radicals or “reactive oxygen,” you know that you are dealing with some nonsensical marketing. Not science.

Fortunately, despite the marketing hype, it’s virtually impossible to obliterate all the free radicals in your body: Some must remain in your system or you will run into all kinds of medical problems.

Let me give you two examples of research that has shown first the good side of a producer of free radicals and second, one of the reasons why we know that there is more to aging than free radicals.

A study from France looked at a dye called mangafodipir that is used in MRI scanning. It was found to increase the cancer-killing ability of some chemotherapy drugs, while at the same time protecting normal cells. Mangafodipir was found to help promote the production of hydrogen peroxide while at the same time, through different biological mechanisms, protecting healthy cells from damage.

The second piece of research concerns my mole rats. I’ve talked about them before. They are extremely long lived: most reach the age of 25-30. And they seem never to get cancer. There are very few species that are spared from cancer: sharks rarely get the disease and there are some simpler organisms that also seem to be spared. So these mole rats have attracted the attention of researchers. What is more, they have very high levels of DNA damaged by oxidation so by rights they should get cancer and age prematurely. The fact that they don’t is leading to a whole new line of thinking about aging and illness.

So the message should be this: oxidative stress may be a factor in illness and aging, but your aim should be to modulate the free radical systems in your body, not to obliterate a key cancer killer.

Eat a diet that is rich in antioxidants
Don’t try and avoid stress: you can’t. Learn to manage it
Take regular physical exercise
Avoid environmental toxins such as smoke, excess sunlight, pesticides and radiation

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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