Symphony in the cells
The workings of the cells in the body is akin to an orchestra – beautiful music if all goes well, horrible noise if something turns awry.
AUDITORY hallucinations are certainly not a good gift to have, but if we were to strain our senses, we can almost hear and feel the harmonious orchestra within us.
Perhaps it was the impacted wax and tunneled vision that made me tone deaf and half blind for a greater part of life, to the miraculous ongoings in the human body.
If one is saved from imminent danger it is only natural to show gratitude to the rescuer, which in my case is a family of antioxidants.
As I began my journey of understanding, the symphony within my cells played to a standing ovation as it became clear that the composer of this masterpiece is none other than the architect of life.
In my early days, I thought the Ancient Chinese conceptualised the “Yin-Yang” philosophy and patented it. The idea of balance, and good versus bad, applied when life first began on earth. It applies to human physiology as well.
Our brain functions on a narrow band of blood sugar. Too high a level induces acidosis and coma, and curiously, we lose consciousness too if it is too low.
Cholesterol is needed for many important functions, but due to some error in judgement on our part, high levels can cause a heartache.
Nitric oxide is gaining exciting recognition as an important biochemical signal in cardiovascular health, but if enthusiasm goes overboard, excess can trigger more than a nasty headache.
Yes, life is confusing, yet full of mystery. The same nitric oxide that keeps healthy blood vessels can turn into a harmful nuisance called a free radical.
The bad stuff is free
Beware of anything that is free, and certainly if radicals are on the loose, trouble brews. Free radicals are highly unstable and reactive molecules generated by our body’s machinery. Although much maligned, we cannot live without them, for free radicals are involved in many natural biological processes. Thoughts, emotions, sexual arousal, immune response, and even drug therapy invokes the interplay of free radicals.
Conversely they also wreak havoc and continuously damage healthy cells, causing or resulting from at least 60 types of degenerative diseases. The paradoxic culprit is oxygen itself, which is more than just a breath of fresh air. It is in essence Jekyll and Hyde, being our lifeline, and yet it erodes our health stealthily like a dark force.
In our everyday activities, we demand energy, which is produced by specialised furnaces (mitochondria) in our cells. The process of packaging parcels of power for the body’s utilisation calls upon a complicated chain of reactions, which involves oxidation of a substrate, commonly glucose.
Each step involves the transfer of a negative charge known as an electron, just like an electric current passing through a wire. The process goes on smoothly, but occasionally, an errant electron escapes. Since it cannot exist on its own, it combines with an oxygen molecule and becomes a nasty free radical known as “superoxide”.
The burning of glucose in the presence of oxygen is like open combustion, just like where there is fire, there is smoke. The heat generated is the energy we desire but the metaphorical smoke are the free radicals that choke our internal system. A free radical with an extra electron is highly unstable and reactive and searches hungrily for a mate as electrons have to be paired. They therefore steal electrons from a convenient store, the cells.
The process of losing an electron is known as oxidation and the robbing spree occurs at lightning speed in thousandth fractions of a second. The fireworks start puncturing the cell membrane, moving into the body and eventually threatening the nucleus which houses our genetic blueprint.
Once the code is damaged, cells go crazy, dividing abnormally and rapidly out of control, rearing its ugly head as cancer. According to Dr Bruce Ames (a foremost researcher on ageing and cancer from the University of California), he estimates that the human cell’s DNA takes an estimated 10,000 free radical hits in a day. We certainly do not have to look very far for a war, as the assault of oxidation is occurring within us every second.
A brilliant scientist (Dr Denham Harman) put forth the theory that human ageing and cell degeneration is due to free radicals. If his proposition is coherently correct, we start growing old from the time we leave the womb. No wonder at age 40, I found my apple turning brown and my spare parts all rusted. Ironically, his research did not find me. I found him in my search.
The sacrificial saviour
Fortunately, the architect of life did anticipate the problem of these troublemakers. In a stroke of brilliance, he endowed the human body with a set of natural antioxidants. These endogenous antioxidants are produced by our cells and work full-time in quelling the ravaging free radicals.
In equally rapid fire mode, they shoot off an electron to the free radical, thus sparing the cells from attack. They work illustriously in every corner of the body, especially in the liver, heart and muscles.
The mitochondrial power-producing plant employs an in-house detective whose function is not only aiding the production of energy, but also cleaning up the marauding mayhem caused by free radicals, working together with a side kick, just like Sherlock Holmes and Watson, which is none other than CoEnzyme Q10 and alpha-lipoic acid.
As our clock ticks on, we begin to face a little challenge. The level of endogenous antioxidants declines with age, but the free radical burden increases. An urgent solution is needed and the answer lies in exogenous sources from fruits and vegetables.
With the greatest ingenuity, plants were added to the scheme of things. The primary function of plants is certainly not merely the provision of a good source of fibre, but also liberating life-giving oxygen through photosynthesis. As a measure of self-defence, it empowers itself with varied coloured pigments and complex compounds to protect itself against the high-oxygen environment, building its armoury of antioxidants.
According to instructions, leaves and fruits are meant to be taken whole and fresh. Some of us have got it wrong by smoking the leaves and imbibing fermented fruits!
If bowels do not misbehave, five to six servings of fruits and vegetables a day is a great way to ward of free radicals and cancer. If “an apple a day can keep the doctor away” is really true, can we imagine what five apples a day can do to the medical profession?
In recent times, science and technological advancement has reached the moon. Man has become extremely innovative, creating easy accessibility in telecommunications, flying objects that can break the sound barrier, new convenient foods with long shelf life, etc, and along the way new environmental toxins and discharges, foreign chemicals in our food and water, and a host of unidentified radiation and poisons surrounding us every day.
These man-made problems have added another dimension into the free radical crisis as the burden is now manifold to the extent that modern man is facing extreme oxidative stress. This is clearly evident in the earlier onset of degenerative diseases.
One solution is to consume even more fruits and vegetables. The bad news is the potato today has less nutrients than the potato of yesteryear due to soil depletion, cheap fertilisers, short harvest interval, extended transportation and storage time.
The optimum amount of a specific antioxidant, for example vitamin E, to prevent oxidative stress, is in the region of 400IU per day, which can be obtained by consuming 28lbs of spinach. Only an elephant or Popeye can take in that much. The other logical solution is to find a good supplement that is of high quality, safe and effective.
The music of battle
In a war of horror not so long ago, I remember watching the CNN breaking news in stunned silence, as images of missiles showering a city in the darkness of night was shown. With the retaliation of anti-missiles, the entire night sky lit up in a flash of devastation, leaving a trail of carnage.
On a microscopic level, a similar battle is taking place. But the difference here is that there is a sound of music as the antioxidants take the stage, the orchestra playing in synergy. Each instrument playing a specific note, all together in perfect balance and harmony, protecting, repairing, and maintaining the good health of the cells.
The darting sparks of randy free radicals flirt and pair off with the myriad antioxidants, who like the sacrificial lamb, entwine them in an elegant dance of lights. Beethoven was deaf and yet composed musical pieces that astound the imagination. Perhaps he was inspired by the symphony within.
On a lighter note, if one tries hard enough, there will definitely be audible sounds emanating from the mid-section as the bowels growl for another delicious meal. This is not the music I am talking about ... this is more the noise of disharmony!
Visionary scientists and authors like Dr Denham Harman, Dr Richard Passwater, Dr Michael Colgan, Dr Les Packer, Dr Ray Strand, and many others have been instrumental in helping us understand the amazing workings of free radicals and the role of antioxidants.
They endured the blows of peer cynicism but their work and theories stood the test of time and it is only now that the mystery is unraveling. This is their story. n Dr C.S. Foo is a medical practitioner. For more information, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org