The Ins and Outs of Oxidative Stress

The Ins and Outs of Oxidative Stress

Putting it simply, oxidative stress is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which can lead to cell and tissue damage. Oxidative stress occurs naturally and plays a role in the aging process, and evidence suggests that long-term oxidative stress contributes to the development in a range of chronic conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. The body’s cells produce free radicals during normal metabolic processes, however, cells also produce antioxidants that neutralize these free radicals. 

In essence, the body is able to maintain a balance between antioxidants and free radicals.

What contributes to oxidative stress?

Several factors contribute to oxidative stress and excess free radical production, including:

  • diet

  • lifestyle

  • certain conditions

  • environmental factors such as pollution and radiation

a temporary position, the body’s natural immune response can also trigger oxidative stress, causing mild inflammation that goes away after the immune system fights off an infection or repairs an injury. But if there is uncontrolled oxidative stress, this can accelerate the aging process and may contribute to the development of a number of conditions.

The role of free radicals

Free radicals, including reactive oxygen species, are molecules with one or more unpaired electrons. For example, free radicals include:

  • superoxide

  • hydroxyl radical

  • nitric oxide radical

Cells contain small structures called mitochondria, which work to generate energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). It is the mitochondria that combines oxygen and glucose to produce carbon dioxide, water, and ATP, and the free radicals arise as byproducts of this metabolic process.

There are external substances--such as cigarette smoke, pesticides, and ozone--that can also cause the formation of free radicals in the body.

How about antioxidants?

Antioxidants are substances that neutralize or remove free radicals by donating an electron, therefore the neutralizing effect of antioxidants helps protect the body from oxidative stress. Examples of antioxidants include vitamins A, C, and E, and like free radicals, antioxidants come from several different sources. Your cells naturally produce antioxidants such as glutathione, however, your diet is also an important source of antioxidants. 

Foods such as fruits and vegetables provide many essential antioxidants in the form of vitamins and minerals that the body cannot create on its own.

The effects of oxidative stress

The effects of oxidative stress vary and are not always harmful. For instance, oxidative stress that results from physical activity may have beneficial, regulatory effects on the body. It is with 

exercise that free radical formation is increased, which can cause temporary oxidative stress in the muscles. Yet, these free radicals formed during physical activity regulate tissue growth and stimulate the production of antioxidants.

Mild oxidative stress may also protect the body from infection and diseases. A study conducted in 2015 showed that oxidative stress limited the spread of melanoma cancer cells, however, long-term oxidative stress damages the body’s cells, proteins, and DNA, contributing to the aging process. It may also play an important role in the development of a range of conditions, which are: 

  1. Chronic inflammation - Oxidative stress can cause chronic inflammation. How it works is that infections and injuries trigger the body’s immune response. Then, immune cells (called macrophages) produce free radicals while fighting off invading germs. These free radicals can damage healthy cells, leading to inflammation. Under normal circumstances, inflammation goes away after the immune system eliminates the infection or repairs the damaged tissue, yet oxidative stress can also trigger the inflammatory response, which, in turn, produces more free radicals that can lead to further oxidative stress, creating a cycle. This chronic inflammation can lead to several conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis.

  2. Neurodegenerative diseases - The effects of oxidative stress may contribute to several neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Your brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress because brain cells require a substantial amount of oxygen, consuming 20 percent of the total amount of oxygen the body needs to fuel itself. Brain cells use oxygen to perform intense metabolic activities that generate free radicals, and it is these free radicals that help support brain cell growth, neuroplasticity, and cognitive functioning.

Conditions linked to oxidative stress

Oxidative stress may play a role in the development of a range of conditions, including:

  • Cancer

  • Alzheimer’s disease

  • Parkinson’s disease

  • Diabetes

  • Cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and stroke

  • Inflammatory disorders

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome

  • Asthma

  • Male infertility

Then there are the factors that may increase your risk of long-term oxidative stress, which include:

  • Obesity

  • A diet high in fat, sugar, and processed foods

  • Exposure to radiation

  • Smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products

  • Excess alcohol consumption

  • Certain prescription medications

  • Environmental pollution

  • Exposure to pesticides or industrial chemicals

It is important to remember that your body requires both free radicals and antioxidants. Therefore, having too many or too few of either may lead to health problems. Try to aim for eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, limit intake of processed foods (particularly those high in sugar and fats), get regular exercise, quit smoking, reduce your stress, and avoid--or reduce--your exposure to pollution and harsh chemicals. 

Maintaining a healthy body weight may also help reduce oxidative stress. It’s been known that excess fat cells produce inflammatory substances that trigger increased inflammatory activity and free radical production in immune cells.

In summary

Oxidative stress is a state that occurs when there is an excess of free radicals in your body’s cells. During normal metabolic processes, your body produces free radicals, however, succumbing to oxidative stress can damage cells, proteins, and DNA, which can contribute to aging. It may also play a role in development of a range of health conditions, including diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Your body naturally produces antioxidants to counteract these free radicals, and paying attention to your diet is also an important source of receiving the proper antioxidants. Be extra certain that lifestyle and dietary changes are prevalent to help reduce oxidative stress--with the inclusion of a healthy body weight, regular exercising, and eating a balanced, healthful diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Oxidative stress can only occur when free radicals overwhelm your body's defense against their harmful effects, therefore if left unchecked, free radicals can damage your DNA by robbing other molecules of their electrons--a process known as "oxidation".

Be sure to follow a diet high in antioxidant-rich foods that may improve your overall health.