Lately I have noticed a lot of publicity about antioxidants, free radicals and oxidative stress. But what exactly is oxidative stress? How is oxidative stress related to antioxidants and free radicals? How do these three things affect our overall health? And what effect do they have on our health as we age? These are very important questions for everyone!
The process of oxidation…
First let’s talk about oxidation. Oxidation is a natural process that happens to cells, including cells in our body. When oxygen interacts with cells, it causes a change in those cells. We see this every day, for example when an apple is sliced and left exposed to the air it turns brown. Another common example is the rusting of metal. In the case of cells in our body, oxidation is a normal cellular process and our body is constantly making new cells to replace older cells that are dying.
About free radicals and the damage they cause…
During the natural oxidation process, some of the cells (from 1% – 2%) become damaged and become free radicals. It should be noted that free radicals are a natural result of every day living, and cannot be avoided – breathing and our body’s metabolic processes cause oxidation, which produces some free radicals. The body has the ability to handle a certain amount of internal free radical activity.
Free radicals are cells that are missing an electron, which makes them unstable. In an effort to replace the missing electron, free radicals attack other cells and damage them. This changes the DNA of the previously healthy cells and they can become mutated, reproduce abnormally, and grow quickly. This is where disease can start.
One free radical can damage more than one cell because it can set off a chain reaction that damages many cells. And the chain reaction can happen very quickly. Damaged cells can also become free radicals.
There are also many external factors that can cause free radicals in our body, such as cigarette smoke, pollution, toxins and pesticides in food, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol and unhealthy foods, excessive exposure to sunlight, and excessive amounts of exercise. Some medical professionals call these factors ‘free radical generators’.
Oxidative stress, antioxidants, and free radicals
Dr Ananya Mandal, MD defines oxidative stress as: “an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract or detoxify their harmful effects through neutralization by antioxidants”.
Antioxidants have the ability to neutralize free radicals by donating an electron to the free radical, without becoming free radicals themselves. Our body naturally produces antioxidants. But research has shown that as we age, our natural antioxidant production declines to the point where our defense system becomes overwhelmed with free radicals. Over time, the imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals and constant cell damage from the free radicals causes oxidative stress, which can lead to a long list of chronic diseases. The list includes heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, inflammation, digestive disorders, skin disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, lung disorders, eye and vision disorders, diabetes, and cancer.
Having a healthy dietary lifestyle and eating foods high in antioxidants is a natural way to help neutralize free radicals. The foods that contain the most antioxidants are fruits and vegetables, particularly the brightly colored ones. Think about the colors of the rainbow here. Bright green, red, yellow, orange, and purple colored fresh produce are very healthy for us. They not only contain antioxidants, but they also contain other nutrients that our body needs such as fiber, vitamins and minerals. Black tea contains some antioxidants, and green tea is an even better source of antioxidants. Antioxidants are also available in supplement form.
In summary – oxidative stress is the result of two things: not enough antioxidants in our body, because our body’s natural antioxidant production has slowed down and too many free radicals in our body that damage healthy cells, which can cause a myriad of chronic illnesses. Oxidative stress affects our overall health by leaving us at risk for chronic illnesses and over time it can cause premature aging and even affect our longevity.
In a future blog post I will talk about how we can increase our body’s ability to make antioxidants – so stay tuned to this blog page! Are you interested in learning more about what you can do to reduce oxidative stress in your body. Contact me and let’s talk about it!
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