Why You NEED to Understand Oxidative Stress —
and How to Avoid It
Oxidative stress is now recognized as a leading cause of chronic disease and aging. It occurs when free radicals — toxic oxygen molecules produced by normal body processes but also via external sources like stress and pollution — spiral out of control.
Antioxidants from healthy foods like fruits and vegetables are still your best line of defense against oxidative stress.
Even the healthiest among us have free radicals in our systems. However, free radicals are normally kept under wraps where they cannot cause great harm to the body. When free radicals exist in your body in excess, the harmful condition known as oxidative stress occurs.
“There is evidence that free radicals are a predominant factor in the etiology of a wide range of diseases and conditions such as cancer, diabetes, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis,” says free radical and antioxidant expert Li Li Ji, Ph.D. of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
How Free Radicals Take Over Your System
There are two major ways that free radicals can overwhelm your body. One is that you’ve been exposed to an abundance of them due to environmental pollutants and other toxins, including:
- Cigarette smoke
- Automobile exhaust
- Air pollution
- Bacterial, fungal, or viral infections
The other is that your body is lacking in the healthy compounds it needs to fight free radicals: antioxidants. Antioxidants can be vitamins, minerals or enzymes, and they exist in foods and certain supplements. Because most Americans do not eat healthy diets — ones that include fruits, vegetables and other whole foods — and instead eat diets rich in processed fast foods, many of us are seriously lacking in these health-giving compounds.
In reality, most of us experience a combination of these effects in daily life. In other words, your diet may not be the best and you’re also exposed to regular second-hand cigarette smoke and alcohol during your daily happy-hour meeting with co-workers, or to exhaust fumes on your drive home. The result is most assuredly oxidative stress.
Mental Stress Leads to Oxidative Stress
Your emotions and exposure to external stress also impact the amount of oxidative stress going on in your body. Take one study of 39 women, aged 20 to 50, who had been experiencing extreme, ongoing stress while caring for a chronically ill child. When compared with 19 similar women who were not undergoing stress, the stressed women had significantly higher levels of oxidative stress in their bodies.
This oxidative stress, the researchers pointed out, damages DNA, including telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes that carry genes. As we age, telomeres naturally shorten and die; however, chronic stress accelerates this process. As increasing numbers of cells reach the end of the telomeres and die, physical symptoms of aging appear, including:
- Weakened muscles
- Fading eyesight and hearing
- Organ failure
- Diminished thinking abilities
“Everybody’s trying to figure out what causes aging and premature aging. We all know that stress seems to age people — just look at the aging of our presidents after four years,” said Dennis H. Novack of Drexel University College of Medicine, who studies the link between emotions and health. “