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.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - HEALTH -

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: starhealth@thes­tar.com.my

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