Antioxidants. Inflammation. Metabolism. Free radicals.
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. They 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?
We’ve decided to tackle this question by taking on a condition that encompasses all of the terms above: oxidative stress. What is oxidative stress? Well, 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 modern ailments.
What’s the Matter With Oxygen?
If there’s something most people remember from high school chemistry, it’s the handiest molecule from the periodic 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 is with how oxygen is processed in our bodies. Contrary to popular belief, oxygen is not fuel for our bodies. Instead, it allows our bodies to burn fuel. Oxygen is used to burn calories we take in by eating, which in turn provides the body with the 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 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. The resulting reactive oxygen species are called free radicals.
Free radicals are powerful things. They are unstable molecules and can react with most anything and break it apart. They have the potential to cause a lot of havoc in both living and non-living 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.
The human body is furnished with elaborate mechanisms to remove excess free radicals naturally. That means that free radicals do not create a threat to the body under normal conditions. However, when the body cannot cope with excess free radicals, it can slip into a state of oxidative stress.
Sometimes more free radicals are produced than the body can handle, or they are generated in sites where they normally would not appear. In these cases, oxidative damage occurs, and it’s not good.
That oxidative damage is not always a bad thing – in fact, it is necessary for some situations. A fascinating example is in preparing the female body for childbirth. Here, oxidative stress initiates tissue damage and clears out excess cells in the birth canal to widen the passage for the upcoming baby.
Overall, when there is an imbalance between producing and neutralizing oxygen free radicals, the body suffers damage.
Assessing the Damage: The Harm Caused by Oxidative Stress
The bane of today’s health care is lifestyle diseases – that is, sickness 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. 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, neurodegenerative diseases, autoimmune disorders, and cardiovascular diseases.
Why is this?
Oxidative stress can cause damage to the body. It negatively alters cells and other structures such as proteins and fats. The body will attempt to heal itself from oxidative stress 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 common illnesses such as colds and viruses. If under oxidative stress, the body will fall into a state of chronic inflammation. This is where the body is constantly inflamed, fighting a never-ending battle.
Chronic inflammation causes cells to go into overdrive, which is taxing on the body. Eventually, cells become damaged and the body starts attacking itself. Here’s how major illnesses are affected by oxidative stress.
Cancer and Oxidative Stress
Although the development of cancer is very complex, it is generally agreed that inflammation plays an important role in both the creation and progression of cancer. Oxidative stress can increase the rate at which cells are damaged, thereby increasing the likelihood of cancer cells developing.
Cardiovascular Disease and Oxidative Stress
Cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and heart failure, 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 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 and neurodegenerative diseases.
How to Manage Oxidative Stress
The treatment for oxidative stress is also the biggest health buzzword of the last decade: antioxidants.
Antioxidants are either created by the body or ingested through diet. They are the “anti” to the “oxidative” – they function to neutralize free radicals and relieve oxidative stress. There are a huge variety of antioxidant vitamins, including vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene, 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. Sadly, it seems like the evidence doesn’t support this conclusion.
Instead, it makes more sense to curb free radical production 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 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. Try a regular bike ride or weight lifting session.
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 the 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 healthy lifespans.
Relaxation and Adequate Sleep
Lack of sleep and high pressure are not only unpleasant but cause 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, increases 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.
De-Stress the Oxidative Stress
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 results are in – armed with this awareness, you now know what you can do today, right now, to develop a healthy lifestyle and minimize oxidative stress.