What Is Oxidative Stress And How Does It Affect Your Health?

Updated November 28, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

You may not have heard of oxidative stress, but it’s a common process in the body with a wide range of potential effects. It refers to an imbalance of potentially toxic free radicals and the antioxidants that can neutralize them. While some level of oxidative stress is normal and even beneficial, too much of it can contribute to several different health conditions. Let’s break down the details of what oxidative stress is, how it can affect your well-being, and what you can do to help keep it at healthy levels.

Your Physical Health And Mental Health Are Linked

What Is Oxidative Stress?

The human body produces some free radicals naturally as a result of normal cell functioning. They’re important components in keeping the body healthy, but too many can lead to oxidative stress—which may be harmful. We may also be exposed to excess free radicals through the consumption of processed foods or alcohol, smoking, and even elements in the environment like pollution, radiation, or chemicals found in cleaning solutions and pesticides. Research has found that the experience of mental stress in our day-to-day lives can also lead to increased oxidative stress over time.

To combat these free radicals, our bodies produce antioxidants—and some fruits and vegetables contain them too. As their name suggests, they’re substances that help prevent oxidation. This proper balancing of free radicals and antioxidants is a vital bodily function. Without it, the body can be in a state of oxidative stress too often or for too long, which can be damaging to overall health. Let’s take a look at the effects of long-term oxidative stress.

Potential Impacts Of Long-Term Oxidative Stress

Some level of oxidative stress can be beneficial for the body, such as when it occurs after exercise in order to control tissue growth. Sustained oxidative stress over the long term, however, can lead to serious health conditions, such as: 

  • Hypertension

  • Neurological diseases (e.g., Alzheimer's, Parkinson's)

  • Cancer

  • Heart disease

  • Diabetes

  • Chronic fatigue

In the shorter term, someone who is experiencing sustained oxidative stress may notice symptoms such as:

  • Memory loss

  • Early development of wrinkles or gray hair

  • Problems with eyesight

  • Weakened immune system

  • Excessive pain in muscles or joints

  • Fatigue

  • Frequent headaches

It’s worth noting, of course, that some symptoms on this list may simply be signs of the natural aging process, or of some other health issue. If you’re experiencing these symptoms and you’ve also experienced other risk factors for increased oxidative stress (poor diet, exposure to chemicals, smoking, etc.), however, it may be worth considering lifestyle changes.

How To Decrease Oxidative Stress In The Body

Managing your oxidative stress levels may help you prevent the development of serious physical health complications. There are several tactics you can try to increase your antioxidant levels and prevent oxidative stress from leading to premature health complications. 

Dietary Changes

One of the simplest ways to help prevent too much oxidative stress is to increase your antioxidant levels. You can do that by eating foods that are high in antioxidants, such as:

  • Berries

  • Citrus

  • Tomatoes

  • Prunes

  • Olives

  • Broccoli

  • Dark, leafy greens

  • Turmeric

  • Green tea

  • Fish

  • Nuts

  • Onion and garlic

Lifestyle Changes

In addition to adjusting your diet, you may be able to keep oxidative stress levels low through certain healthy lifestyle choices, such as:

  • Exercising regularly. An extensive body of research over the years has uncovered links between physical activity and health benefits like longevity, slower aging, and decreased risk for many mental and physical illnesses. A 2018 study in particular also found that physical exercise can help prevent excessive oxidative stress by reducing free radicals.

  • Avoiding smoking. Smoking cigarettes can increase oxidative stress by producin`g additional free radicals and limiting the functioning of antioxidants. Quitting smoking can help prevent a number of diseases and improve your body’s ability to neutralize free radicals.

  • Using sun protection. A 2019 study found that excessive sun exposure can promote oxidation in the body. If you’re spending a lot of time in direct sun, make sure to apply sunscreen and/or wear clothes that block damaging UV rays.

  • Avoiding overeating. Research from 2009 discovered a link between overeating and oxidative stress. That’s why eating smaller portions at consistent intervals can be helpful, as can limiting the amount of processed foods you consume and drinking enough water.

  • Limiting day-to-day stress. The links between excessive stress and negative mental and physical health outcomes has been well-documented. The experience of mental or psychological stress can also cause oxidative stress in the body, so creating a balanced life, taking up relaxing hobbies, or cultivating a meditation practice may help reduce both.

  • Limiting exposure to toxins and chemicals. Some substances like pesticides and cleaning chemicals can contain certain toxins that may create an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body. When possible, consider opting for organic food, chemical-free cleaning products, and a water filter that can extract potentially damaging substances.

Your Physical Health And Mental Health Are Linked

How Therapy Can Help

Speaking with a therapist may have a variety of health benefits, including potentially decreasing oxidative stress. If you’re finding it difficult to reduce lifestyle risk factors for oxidative stress—such as smoking or overeating—they can work with you to discover and adjust any underlying motivations or thought patterns that are leading to these behaviors. If mental health conditions like depression or anxiety are contributing to high psychological stress levels in your life, they may be able to help you manage symptoms to reduce that stress. They may even assist you in identifying strategies to hold yourself accountable to any healthy lifestyle choices you may decide to make.

Some people find virtual therapy to be a more comfortable option for them, and a growing body of research supports its efficacy. A broad review of studies on the topic suggests that online therapy is as effective as in-person treatment for the symptoms relating to a range of mental health concerns. The review also noted that online therapy can help individuals enact healthy lifestyle changes like quitting smoking and losing weight, both of which have been shown to reduce oxidative stress. If virtual therapy is an option you’re interested in, a platform like BetterHelp can match you with a licensed therapist who you can speak with via phone call, video call, and/or online chat. For reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people in similar situations, see below.

“Working with Linda has been absolutely wonderful. She has a way of taking things that interest me, and using them to help me better understand myself and ways for me to cope with my stress and anxiety. She is such a warm and understanding person. I always look forward to our sessions, and I leave each session feeling accomplished and encouraged. I couldn't ask for a better therapist.”

Linda Cousens, LCPC - (More reviews)

“Linda has been great in helping me with my stress/anxiety. It's been helpful to have another perspective on situations and be able to view things from a new angle.”

Linda Kurian, LPC - (More reviews)

Takeaway

Prolonged or excessive oxidative stress may lead to a variety of negative health outcomes. There are several strategies you can try to limit it, including eating a balanced diet, exercising, and avoiding certain substances. For support in making healthy lifestyle changes or addressing mental health concerns, consider reaching out to a licensed therapist.

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