What is Oxidative Stress and How Does it Affect Your Health?
By Nadia Khan
Updated August 30, 2019
Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault
Oxidative Stress may or may not be a term you have heard before. Medical News Today defines oxidative stress as an "imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which can lead to cell and tissue damage."
If you're trying to figure out what it means, you're not alone! Oxidative Stress can be a difficult concept to grasp so let's break it down step by step in order to get a better understanding of what it is and what causes oxidative stress.
Let's start with free radicals. What are they? It is one or more atoms that contain an unpaired electron. The human body produces free radicals naturally as a result of biological changes and things like inflammation or exercising. This is a natural and important component of keeping the body healthy and functioning smoothly. Elements in the environment also expose us to free radicals. Things like smoke from cigarettes, pollution, radiation, chemicals found in cleaning solutions or pesticides etc. A poor diet high in fats, sugars and alcohol also contributes to the production of free radicals.
What are antioxidants? An antioxidant can be viewed as the anti-free radical since it is a substance, which helps to reduce the damage caused in the body by free radicals. Antioxidants are produced naturally in the body and can also be found in external sources, fruits and vegetables. The most common antioxidants are vitamin A, C and E as well as beta carotene. Antioxidants are very important since they neutralize free radicals by giving electrons and help to protect and counteract the negative effects of oxidative stress.
Now that you know what free radicals and antioxidants are, why are they important and how does it relate to oxidative stress? While oxidation is a perfectly normal process occurring in the body, the proper balancing of free radicals and antioxidants is a vital part in ensuring the body functions properly. When there are too many free radicals, the body is unable to regulate itself. It can alter the chemical structures, damage the body's cells and DNA, and cause oxidative stress.
Why is this important to understand? Because oxidative stress can be very damaging to your health, it can make you age faster and over time can lead to any number of (sometimes life threatening) diseases and illnesses such as:
- Heart disease;
- Hypertension - commonly known s high blood pressure;
- Neurological diseases like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome;
What are the Symptoms of Oxidative Stress?
If the oxidative stress process is happening internally, how can you know if your lifestyle is causing damage to your body? Thankfully there are some oxidative stress symptoms you can be on the look out for:
- Difficulty remembering things or memory loss;
- Wrinkles and greying hair - especially if you are still in your thirties or forties;
- Problems with eyesight and vision;
- Weakened immune system leading you to be more susceptible to catching colds, infections or other illnesses;
- Pains in your muscles or joints;
- Feeling tired and fatigued;
- Prone to getting headaches;
Of course all of these symptoms can simply be signs of getting older or can be due to any number of other reasons. But if you find yourself experiencing or noticing some of these oxidative stress symptoms on a frequent and regular basis, it cannot hurt to stop for a minute and re-evaluate your life and make some lifestyle changes. Whether it's oxidative stress or something else, living a healthier life will prove beneficial in the long run and help you live a longer life.
If it turns out you are suffering from oxidative stress, there are things you can do to reverse and minimize its effects on your body as there is unfortunately, no medical cure, pill or treatment for getting rid of oxidative stress.
How To Manage Oxidative Stress:
Since there is no treatment for oxidative stress, the only thing that you can do (if it's a concern) is to take preventative action or take the necessary steps to reduce it.
As oxidative stress is caused by free radicals overwhelming the body, you need to boost your intake of antioxidants to counter it. While it is not possible to avoid exposure to free radicals, there are ways to reduce the effects of oxidative stress.
The simplest way of doing so is by increasing the number of antioxidants in your body and the easiest way to do that is through diet and a few lifestyle changes since these are things you can control.
Diet (eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day) is an easy way of ensuring you are getting plenty of antioxidants in your body. The best fruits and vegetables to consume are:
- Berries like blueberries or blackberries are rich in antioxidants;
- Citric fruits like oranges;
- Dark greens like spinach;
- Prunes - they're not only great for promoting a healthy digestive system but contain a lot of antioxidants;
Antioxidants are also found in other types of food such as:
- Green tea;
- Vitamins (if you're struggling to get in a variety of vitamins, consider taking a multivitamin);
- Onion and garlic;
Aside from your diet, there are also choices and changes you can make in your lifestyle to manage and prevent oxidative stress.
- Exercising regularly: This does not mean you have to live at the gym 24/7. Even thirty minutes of moderate cardio (running, elliptical, swimming, etc.) three or four times a week is enough to increase the levels of antioxidants in your body. Research has shown exercising also helps you live longer, reduce the signs of ageing and reduces the risks of many diseases and illnesses.
- Avoiding smoking, drugs and alcohol: All these substances are damaging and harmful to your body, especially if and when it turns into an addiction. Substance abuse has been liked to a host of diseases and illnesses and will increase the effects of damage by oxidative stress.
- Using sunscreen: Ultraviolet lights from direct and prolonged contact with the sun can be very damaging to the skin, sunscreen acts as a protective barrier.
- Sleeping well: People often don't realize how important sleep is when it comes to keeping your body functioning smoothly. Sleeping well helps to balance and rejuvenate the body and makes you feel less stressed. It also helps with weight gain.
- Eating moderately: Eating too much has been linked to increased oxidative stress. It is therefore recommended that you eat smaller, healthier portions at frequent intervals (every two hours or so). It is also important to limit the amount of processed food you eat, skip the chocolate and opt for a fruit instead. Drinking a lot of water also helps to keep you hydrated and rids the body of toxins.
- Avoid being stressed: This might seem like a near impossible thing to achieve but take some time out every day or every few days to do something that helps you relax and take a mental breather. This can be reading, going for a walk, listening to music or simply sitting in silence and meditating.
- Avoid toxins and chemicals: Whenever possible opt for organic food, try to use chemical free cleaning products and other household supplies.
- Help the environment: This is part of a bigger picture and a social initiative. By recycling or using public transportation or biking, you will help to reduce pollution and free radicals in your environment.
Keep in mind if oxidative stress does lead to other illnesses and diseases, you will have to see a doctor to get treated for that particular illness. For example, if over time oxidative stress leads to heart disease, you will need to see a heart specialist to receive treatment and they will treat your heart problems, not the oxidative stress.
It's clear that the best way of combatting oxidative stress is simply living a healthier life and while it may sound challenging or difficult, it is actually a silver lining. Most illnesses and diseases require medication, visits to the doctor, medical treatment and maybe even surgery if the illness becomes serious enough. But oxidative stress is something you can manage and treat all on your own.
All you need is a little commitment on your end and the decision to make a few lifestyle changes. The changes don't have to happen all at once, take baby steps, cut out little things here and there. It may be difficult at first to forego the unhealthy carbs in favor of the healthy carbs, it might be hard to regularly fit in time for exercise or cut back on alcohol or give up smoking. But after a few weeks and months of staying committed all these habits will become second nature and your body will thank you for it. If you have questions or need some help to keep you motivated or you're finding it difficult to give up a bad habit like smoking or drinking or overeating, you can always speak to a therapist either in person or online. Professional therapists are available at all times to help you get through difficult times so you can live your best life.
In the long run the changes and choices you make today will help keep your body running smoothly, will give you more energy, will help you look and feel better, and as a bonus, keep illnesses at bay.