The Implications Of A Dysregulated Redox Mechanism On Our Health.
How damaging can electron transfer be if it is not regulated properly?
The electron is a particle that is responsible for transporting electric currents. That’s how we get electricity from the power sockets — we draw an electric current that is sustained by the flow of electrons along a wire.
Electrons can be transferred from molecule to molecule in chemical reactions, too. This transfer of electrons from one molecule to another can result in a change in their chemical structures and their chemical properties. It also has the potential to influence their physical, chemical and biochemical properties.
That’s when the concepts of oxidation and reduction come in.
If Chemical A is able to extract electrons from Chemical B, we say that Chemical B is getting oxidised (loss of electrons), while Chemical A is a pro-oxidising agent that is getting reduced.
If Chemical B can maintain a stable chemical form upon oxidation, then it is a good antioxidant. However, if it cannot, then it turns into a highly unstable reactive oxygen species (ROS) that has to oxidise something else to extract electrons to maintain its stability.
The propagation of these ROS oxidation reactions will generate even more unstable ROS species, which can also be termed as “free radicals”. That’s what a lot of different health websites are talking about these days.
The Redox Potential
A stable form of Chemical B reduces the probability of ROS propagation. Different A-B pairings will result in the development of different reduction-oxidation (redox) potentials, as highlighted in the table below:
What do these numbers mean? Let’s take oxygen/water at +0.82 V and glutathione oxidised/reduced at -0.24 V, for example.
In the scheme of things, oxygen is the oxidising agent and water is its reducing counterpart, whereas oxidised glutathione is the oxidising agent and reduced glutathione is its reducing counterpart.
We can see that the oxygen/water pair has a redox potential that is higher than the oxidised/reduced glutathione pair, with a net redox potential of 0.82 -(-0.24) = 1.06 V.
If oxygen were to come into contact with reduced glutathione, oxygen would oxidise reduced glutathione into oxidised glutathione, and oxygen would get reduced to water in the process.
If water were to come into contact with oxidised glutathione, the net redox potential would be -0.24–0.82 = -1.06 V, and no electron transfer would occur. We need a positive (>0 V) net redox potential for electron transfer to occur.
In that same vein, can you work out that reduced Vitamin C is able to regenerate oxidised Vitamin E back to its reduced form (and in doing so, get oxidised into oxidised Vitamin C)?
Understanding this redox potential thingy is important because…
The redox activity in our bodies is generally well regulated. While our cell mitochondria are responsible for producing a lot of the ROS in our cells, ROS activity is kept in check by the glutathione antioxidants that are produced by the nuclear factor-erythroid 2 p45-related factor 2 (or nuclear respiratory factor 2, nrf2) transcriptional pathway in the body.
However, if all that cannot handle all the ROS that the body is producing, then there will be an “imbalance between reactive oxygen species and antioxidant reserve, referred to as oxidative stress”.
And oxidative stress isn’t that great for us, because it can result in “the altered structure and function of proteins, lipids and DNA”.
While oxidative stress appears to be a chemical problem on the surface, we do have to note that under the tip of the iceberg lies a massive change in how the biological components of our body function.
Especially when the proteins, lipids and DNA of our cells can get damaged by oxidative stress.
If one were under a ton of psychological stress, could we expect them to make the right decision under pressure? Most people would crack.
Now, if our cells were subjected to these biochemical stressors, how can we expect them to operate as if there was no problem at all?
So while we’re just looking at the electron transfers between glutathione and ROS… an insufficient quantity of electrons being transferred to the ROS to neutralise them can result in a lot of problems down the line.
One common solution is to consume more antioxidant nutrients, which can be useful for helping to neutralise some of the ROS.
But we do have to note that this neutralisation is a one-pass situation. React the antioxidant once with an ROS molecule, and it’s no longer useful unless something else can help to regenerate it.
Whereas in the cell, glutathione can be regenerated constantly by the glutathione reductase enzyme.
But what’s going to happen to all the un-neutralised ROS molecules? Things that cannot be neutralised in time by the glutathione or any other antioxidants in our body?
There are many other molecules in our body that the ROS can target.
- The DNA strands that make up our cellular DNA. React with them, destroy them, and mutate the DNA structure, which can then potentially turn into a cancer situation.
- The imbibing of too much alcohol can generate all that excess ROS and we’d see liver damage potentially turning into cirrhosis. Or liver cancer.
- What if the generated ROS were to oxidise the cholesterol-containing low density lipoproteins (LDL) instead? And the accumulation of LDL particles only provides more opportunities for oxidation!
It’s such an interesting problem because we can’t even see what’s going on until it’s too late. The electron is just that small — in fact, it contributes negligible weight to an atom.
But yet a poor regulation of electron transfers can cause a lot of headaches in the years to come, especially for one who is starting to experience poor health.
Maintaining the redox reactions in our body is one of the keys to supporting a healthy body. But yet there isn’t much attention being paid to it.
Scary, isn’t it? But yet we don’t think about that — or we aren’t even conscious about the issue… until the medical checkup reveals that there are all these problems with our health!
Joel Yong, Ph.D., is a biochemical engineer/scientist, an educator and a writer. He has authored 5 ebooks (available on Amazon.com in Kindle format) and co-authored 6 journal articles in internationally peer-reviewed scientific journals. His main focus is on finding out the fundamentals of biochemical mechanisms in the body that the doctors don’t educate the lay people about, and will then proceed to deconstruct them for your understanding — as an educator should.
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