If you’re interested in health, these terms have at least entered your periphery. They are hard to avoid – during the last few decades, these terms have gained a lot of steam. These terms are popping up in every conceivable space in the health world – from listicles to food labels to instructions coming from your dietitian’s mouth.
So how do they all relate and how can you process all of this information to make good decisions about your health?
Here at Spire, we’ve decided to tackle this question by taking on a condition that fundamentally encompasses all of the terms above: oxidative stress.
Once you learn what oxidative stress is and how to manage it, you’ll find that you’ve made huge inroads into tackling a major source of a variety of modern ailments.
Remember not to hold your breath until the end – this is a comprehensive guide.
What’s the Matter with Oxygen?
If there’s something most people remember from high school chemistry, it’d have to be the handiest molecule from the table of elements – oxygen. Without this little molecule, life on Earth wouldn’t be possible. But as with all good things (except for relaxation, in our opinion) O2 has a dark side.
The issue isn’t so much the oxygen out in the atmosphere, but rather how oxygen is processed in our bodies. Contrary to appearances, oxygen is not fuel for our bodies. Instead, it allows our bodies to burn fuel. That is, oxygen is used to burn calories we take in by eating, which in turn provides the body with energy it needs to function. In order words, oxygen powers your metabolism. This process is termed “oxidation” – that is, using oxygen as a ‘switch’ to get other chemical processes going.
But the O2 present in the air we breathe is in a stable and unreactive form.It’s got no bang. It’s a dead ignition switch.
Therefore, the body needs to break the O2 molecule apart to use it as the match to get the oven roaring. The body will break the oxygen molecule apart, leaving it extremely reactive and ready to rumble. These reactive leftover pieces are called “free radicals.”
Free radicals are powerful things. They can react with most anything and break it apart. They have the potential to cause a lot of havoc in both living and nonliving substrates. The body not only produces its own free radicals; it is also bombarded with them from a variety of external sources. These include radiation, cigarette smoke, pollution, and medication. All in all, however, the major source of free radicals is the body itself.
But you wouldn’t be reading this if the human body didn’t have a way with dealing with it all. The human body is furnished with elaborate and quasi-miraculous mechanisms to remove free radicals naturally. That means that free radicals do not necessarily create a threat to the body under normal conditions.
However, when the body cannot cope with excessive oxidation and the subsequent creation of free radicals, it can slip into a state of oxidative stress.
Oxidative Stress: Mostly Bad, but not All Bad
Free radicals are inevitably produced as part of the human metabolism. Unfortunately, sometimes more radicals are produced than the body can handle, or they are generated in sites where they normally would not appear.
In these cases, oxidative stress occurs, and it’s not good.
It’s important to note, however, that oxidative stress is not always a bad thing – in fact, it is necessary in some situations. A fascinating example is in preparing the female body for childbirth. In this situation, oxidative stress will destroy excess cells in the birth canal to widen the passage for the upcoming baby.
Overall, however, when there is an imbalance between producing and neutralizing free radicals, the body suffers damage.
Assessing the Damage: Harm Caused by Oxidative Stress
The bane of today’s existence are ‘lifestyle’ diseases – that is, maladies caused or exacerbated by unhealthy lifestyle conditions of the modern world. Most of the leading causes of death in the United States – heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes – are considered ‘lifestyle diseases.’
The major cause of death for anyone in any country is aging. No matter how healthy a life you live, age tends to catch up to you.
These causes of death seem very different, but they have something in common: oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress plays a major part in the development of a variety of chronic and lifestyle diseases, including cancer, arthritis, aging, autoimmune disorders, and cardiovascular diseases.
Why is this?
Oxidative stress can cause damage to the body. It negatively alters cells and other structures essential to normal bodily functioning, such as proteins and fats. Over a prolonged period of damage caused by oxidative stress, the body will attempt to heal itself through a process of inflammation.
Inflammation involves a set of mechanisms, including swelling, heating up, and sending extra white blood cells. These are all part of the body’s natural defense mechanism against a variety of attacks including common illnesses like colds and viruses. If over-attacked by oxidative stress, the body will fall into a state of chronic inflammation. This is where the body finds itself in a state when it is constantly inflamed, fighting a never-ending battle.
Chronic inflammation is not a natural state for the body to be in. It causes cells to go into overdrive, which is taxing on the body. Eventually, cells become damaged and the body starts attacking itself. Chronic inflammation as caused by oxidative stress is a disease in and of itself, but also underlies many lifestyle diseases and conditions:
Cancer and oxidative stress
Although the development of cancer is very complex, it is generally agreed that inflammation is critical to both the creation and progression of cancer. Cancer tumors are started by a cell mutating due to damage and starting to reproduce at an uncontrolled rate. Oxidative stress can increase the rate at which cells are damaged, thereby possibly increasing the likelihood of cancer developing.
Cardiovascular disease and oxidative stress
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in developed nations. It is caused by a variety of factors, including smoking, poor diet, stress, and lack of exercise. There is mounting evidence that the oxidative stress brought on by these behaviors is the ultimate underlying cause of cardiovascular disease.
Brain diseases and oxidative stress
Oxidative stress has been linked to a number of brain and mind related illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, ALS, memory loss, and many more. Dementia, once thought to be a natural part of aging, is now being discovered to be partially due to free radical damage in the brain brought on by oxidative stress.
Eye diseases and oxidative stress
Oxidative stress is involved with age-related macular degeneration and cataracts by damaging the tender cells in the eyes.
Aging and oxidative stress
As we age, our cells lose the ability to neutralize free radicals, allowing oxidative stress to build up. This causes increasing damage to DNA and other cellular elements, leading to impairment of bodily functions over time.
How to Deal with Oxidative Stress
With so many diseases and issues caused by oxidative stress, the question is how to deal with this threat. This is where the biggest health buzzword of the last decade comes in: antioxidants.
Antioxidants are either created by the body or ingested through diets. They are the “anti” to the “oxidative” – they function to neutralize free radicals and relieve oxidative stress.
There are a huge variety of antioxidants to choose from, some which are unfamiliar and produced by the body itself. Familiar sounding ones include vitamin E, vitamin C, carotenoids, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
You may think that loading yourself up with antioxidant rich foods and supplements would be the answer to oxidative stress – that taking in lots of antioxidants will neutralize the extra free radicals causing oxidative stress.
Sadly, it seems like the evidence doesn’t support this conclusion.
Instead, it makes more sense to prevent the formation of excess free radicals in the first place through a few lifestyle modifications. These strategies work at keeping cells in good working order so that they are not producing much of an excess of free radicals in the first place, and that they are doing a good job at disposing of any extras that are created.
Here are some evidence-backed tactics for reducing oxidative stress in your body:
Regular but Moderate Exercise
While an irregular, high intensity exercise regimen has been associated with higher oxidative stress, regular exercise is associated with a lower resting metabolic rate, higher antioxidant activity, and lower oxidation rates in cells. Going for a regular bike ride or weight lifting session is a good idea for anyone, and especially so someone concerned with oxidative stress
The advice “eat healthy” is often prescribed – but what about eating less? It turns out that when it comes to oxidative stress, eating at or slightly below your caloric requirements is just as important as getting nutrient-dense foods into your diet. Practice eating less, perhaps through tactics like intermittent fasting. Calorie restriction is associated with enhanced functioning of your body’s natural antioxidants and maintaining optimal cellular environments for their smooth functioning. Plus, research findings are increasingly showing that calorie restriction may extend disability-free lifespans.
Lack of sleep and the high pressures modern society places on people is not only unpleasant, but causes oxidative stress. Stress decreases the effectiveness of your body’s immune system, and possibly the ability of antioxidants and cells to function properly. Adrenaline, a hormone released in the body while stressed, is known to increase oxidative stress. Stress has also been shown to reduce protective antioxidant levels in the blood. Sleep deprivation was shown to have similar effects, with sleep normalization shown to return antioxidant and cellular functioning back to normal. You can read all about it in this article, and then close the screen you are reading this on and go relax.
We have to admit: writing this article about oxidative stress was a rather stressful experience. It’s almost overwhelming to think that such a harmful process occurs in all of our bodies at every instant of our lives.
The good news is that there is a fervent effort to gather more information regarding oxidative stress and how we can better manage it to live our lives optimally. But you don’t need to wait until the jury is back in – armed with this awareness, there are things you can do today, right now, to live an optimal life and minimize oxidative stress.
Breathe a big breath of oxygen and know that you can make sure it’s processed optimally in your body.