Twenty years ago, if you'd mentioned free radicals to the average person, they would probably have thought you were talking about campus political dissidents. Today, almost everyone has at least some familiarity free radicals and their harmful effects - which is why health-conscious people always have their ears perked up for news on the latest antioxidant to hit the market.
But even after a generation of attention on the role of free radicals in health and disease, many health-conscious people still don't know that, while some free radicals come into the body from the environment (such as from smog, rancid fats, and ultraviolet radiation),most free radicals are actually produced by the body itself. Some free radicals are used by the body's immune cells to kill off invaders. Others are produced by the enzymes that help your body break down toxins. Even the ability of your blood vessels to relax and allow blood to flow is dependent on production of a kind of free radical (nitric oxide).
At Ground Zero
And in fact, the single biggest source of free radicals in your body are its mitochondria 57 Elsewhere in this article, we've referred to mitochondria as the cell's "power plants." But "nuclear power plants" might be a more precise image. Because as part of the process of energy production, both nuclear plants and mitochondria also produce deadly, high-energy waste. In the case of mitochondria, that waste is a free radical called superoxide.
This means that the body's cellular power plants are the site of an ongoing "reactor leak," exposing them to the biggest load of free radical marauders in the body. And unfortunately, while your body produces antioxidant enzymes which can partially protect the rest of the cell from free radical damage, these enzymes are much less able to protect the mitochondria.
A striking example of the greater vulnerability of mitochondria to free radical damage is the extent of the damage suffered by their DNA, which is separate from the DNA of the rest of the cell. While health-conscious people are rightly concerned about free radical damage to the DNA blueprints of the cell as a whole, the number of hits to the main genetic code pales next to the level of damage suffered by mitochondrial DNA. When you look at the cells of key organs like the brain and heart - the long-lived cell types that normally must last a lifetime - you see that mitochondrial DNA suffers seven to eleven times more damage from free radicals than does the DNA for the rest of the cell. 58 , 59, 60
The picture doesn't get any prettier when you look at the working parts of the mitochondria - a system we've only recently begun to truly understand. Remarkably, as scientists have pieced together the mechanism wherebymitochondria generate energy, it's become clear that mitochondria create power using almost identical principles to the ones used by hydroelectric dams - right down to the turbines! 61, 62
In simple terms, mitochondria take energy from food, and use it to build up a "reservoir" of hydrogen ions (H+) behind a "dam" (the mitochondrial inner membrane). The buildup of ions behind the "dam" creates a force drawing them to the "downhill" side of the mitochondrial inner membrane, just as water behind a dam is drawn downward by gravity. The "dam" leaves only one route for the ions to flow: through a quite literal turbine called "Complex V" (or the "F0/F1 ATP synthase"). The flow of ions through Complex V literally causes its turbine to spin, and this motion drives the joining of a carrier molecule (adenosine diphosphate, ADP) with a high-energy phosphate bond, to create the "universal energy molecule" of life: ATP (adenosine triphosphate).
So guess what happens when the moving parts of your turbine start to wear out, and you start getting cracks in your hydro dam?
You get the picture. With age, the mitochondrial "dam" literally becomes leakier, allowing hydrogen ions to escape across the mitochondrial inner membrane without powering the Complex V turbine 63 A key part of this loss of membrane function is free radical damage in the proteins of the mitochondria, which slowly creeps up with age 64 Just as a leaking dam reduces the water levels behind it (and thus, the potential energy which is available to drive the dam's electrical turbines), so a leaky mitochondrial inner membrane reduces the amount of force available to push ions through the ATP turbines of Complex V.
As a result, old organisms' mitochondria have less membrane energy potential than do young ones, and produce less ATP 63 (a fact which can be measured using mitochondrial oxygen use). In addition to seriously compromising your cellular energy supply (and especially the ability of the cell to increase energy output to meet unusually high energy demands under stressful conditions), this mitochondrial energy inefficiency has another cost. Remember, the process of maintaining the ion "reservoir" creates waste, in the form of superoxide free radicals. When there are leaks in the "dam," it takes more and more "pumping" of ions to create a given amount of energy, because fewer of the ions that are moved into the "reservoir" will ultimately generate energy by passing through the Complex V turbines.
The consequence: old animals' mitochondria "burn" their fuel less and less cleanly, churning out more and more free radical waste per unit of useable energy produced. 63, 65, 66 , It's a vicious circle: as mitochondria decay, the cell's power situation looks more and more like a California brown-out, even as the cell's need for energy is increased by the greater and greater load of choking free radicals … which come precisely from its increasingly polluting "power plants."
Less energy. More free radicals. The flames of life grow smoky and dim. Without energy, the cell can't perform its essential functions in the body. Proteins aren't made; chemicals aren't detoxified; hearts don't pump; wounds don't heal. Youth fades. Organisms age … and die.
How can you get that youthful energy production back?
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