The term “oxidative stress” is frequently mentioned in the realm of science but it is not often clear what it means for our health. Research however indicates that oxidative stress is an underlying cause of many health challenges and diseases including everything from base level inflammation to fibrosis to cardiovascular and kidney disease. It also plays a role in miscarriage and complication in pregnancy. So understanding and preventing it is a smart strategy if you’re wanting greater health and wellbeing.
Let’s explore what it is, signs to look out for, and some simple steps you can take to prevent it.
What is Oxidative Stress?
The process of oxidation happens as our bodies metabolize (or process) the oxygen that we breath and our cells produce energy from it. This process also produces free radicals –which interact with the molecules within our cells resulting in damage (or stress) to nearby cells, mitochondria, and DNA (our genes).
Here’s a more detailed explanation of how oxidative stress occurs:
Chronic inflammation is induced by1:
- biological (eg. infections, autoimmune disease)
- chemical (eg. drugs, environmental toxins)
- and physical factors (eg. lack of physical activity)
The inflammatory cells are then a source of free radicals in the forms of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species, although reactive oxygen species (ROS) are considered the most common. The highly reactive ROS are capable of damaging various structures and functional pathways in cells.
In consequence, the presence of inflammatory cells is stimulated by cell damage caused by ROS, creating a cycle of chronic damage that is difficult to break.
Oxidative stress arises from alterations in the oxidation-reduction balance of cells. Normally, ROS are countered by endogenous natural defences known as antioxidants, and it is the imbalance between ROS and antioxidants which favours greater relative levels of ROS, thereby giving rise to a state of oxidative stress2.
Free radicals are normal and necessary to some degree. In addition to causing some damage, they also stimulate repair. It is only when the number of free radicals produced overwhelms the repair processes that it becomes an issue. That is what we call oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress happens when the number of free radicals exceeds the number of antioxidants. That’s when oxidation damages our cells, proteins and our DNA (genes).
Oxidation happens under a number of circumstances including:
- when our cells use glucose to make energy
- when the immune system is fighting off bacteria and creating inflammation
- when our bodies detoxify pollutants, pesticides, radiation, cigarette smoke and drug use
- during times of environmental stress
In fact, there are millions of processes taking place in our bodies at any one moment that can result in oxidation.
How Do You Know If You Have Oxidative Stress?
- Memory loss and/or brain fog
- Muscle and/or joint pain
- Wrinkles and grey hair
- Decreased eyesight
- Headaches and sensitivity to noise
- Susceptibility to infections
Do these signs sound a bit vague?
Yes, potentially they do however through understanding the process of oxidative stress we can appreciate how cell damage then progressively compromises natural order and physiological processes in the body.
So, what can cellular damage do?
This diagram that I have adapted from A. Agarwal and his paper, The Role of Antioxidant Therapy In The Treatment Of Male Infertility, gives amazing clarity as to how oxidative stress can cause havoc in the body.3
Here we see that as an example oxidative stress is able to:
- damage the sperm’s cell membrane and sperm DNA, leading to single or double-strand breaks referred to as DNA fragmentation.
If DNA fragmentation is left unrepaired it can render the sperm malformed, immobile or both. Defective sperm, unfortunately, can also cause miscarriage.
- for women, oxidative stress may impair follicles and ovaries, decrease fertilisation and the likelihood of implantation and increases the chance of miscarriage.
This may not be the case. Often couples assume this to be the case when in fact impaired cell division caused by male oxidative stress can cause a miscarriage after implantation has occurred. Oxidative stress is known to play a role in placental dysfunction and pre-eclampsia and other pathologies in pregnancy.4
How to Reduce Oxidative Stress
There are two ways to reduce oxidative stress.
1. Avoid exposure to unnecessary oxidation
2. increase your antioxidants.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
- AVOID EXPOSURE TO UNNECESSARY OXIDATION
As I said at the top of this article, oxidation increases when:
- we are STRESSED
Allow time for daily stress remedies. It seems so simple, but it really pays off. That’s why you need to build breaks into your day – to give your body a chance to recover. Be sure to honour the breaks in your schedule (or create them) and take them as a chance to enjoy the outdoors, breathe, and re-center. These are some ideas for daily stress remedies: exercise, talking a nice walk, meditation, talking with a friend, enjoying nature, journaling, laughing, and taking a walk.
- With TOXINS, CHEMICALS AND PESTICIDES
Choosing organic foods and avoiding toxins in your environment makes a big difference. Avoid cigarettes, candles, hair and nail salons, carpet, exhaust fumes and plastic. Check your personal care and cleaning products for toxic ingredients and replace them with non-toxic alternatives.
The more sugar we eat, the more oxidation happens
- PROCESSED FOODS
These foods often contain sugar and/or other chemicals that also result in oxidation
When the immune system is fighting off an infection, it ends up creating oxidation which is why, when you get sick, it drains your body of energy. Have a plan in place that allows you to consistently invest in your immune strength. Eating a diet high in clean organic foods rich in vitamins and minerals, getting enough quality sleep and exercise, avoiding toxins and stress and regularly seeing holistic health practitioners like chiropractors who support brain-body connection. Chinese Medicine practitioners and naturopaths are wonderful to see when your body needs a boost or you know you are, or you are about too, tax your body through work or travel commitments. Being proactive and investing in your health to strengthen your immune system isn’t a luxury – it makes sense, saving you financially and physically in the long-run.
- PROTECT yourself from OXIDATIVE STRESS
Protecting yourself from oxidative stress is as simple as protecting your cells by providing what your body needs and avoiding what it doesn’t need.
Knowing that we are all exposed to stress and toxins, and potentially infections, on a daily basis, choosing ways to reduce stress and increase antioxidants will help you prevent diseases and to live a longer, healthier life.
- INCREASE YOUR ANTIOXIDANTS
No matter what you to do avoid them, you are going to be exposed to some toxins and stress, so your next step is to increase the anti-oxidants you have in your system either by helping your body make more or by consuming them in food or supplements.
What antioxidants do is – block oxidation. They squelch it and make it non-harmful!
Here are some steps you can take to combat oxidative stress, each of these increase antioxidants in your system:
- PROMOTE the PRODUCTION of ANTIOXIDANTS
One of the most powerful antioxidants is glutathione which is produced by the body. It is made from three amino acids – glycine, glutamate, and cysteine – and it contains sulphur, which is what makes it so effective.One of the easiest ways to produce more glutathione in the body is to take a supplement that provides the body with these three amino acids so the body can then – make glutathione. Some glutathione supplements are not absorbed well through the stomach and other precursor glutathione supplements such as NAC, have been known to cause gut irritability. So, in my experience and I’ve tried alot of glutathione products, a supplement I personally love and have had noticable changes with, as have clients, is Cellgevity. Now no one product works for everyone but I would recomend looking at it.
I have a couple of gene variations or SNP’s that make my detoxification processes less efficient then other peoples. This means I tend to store toxins in my body which is not ideal and so I need to maximise my glutathione production.
These supplements have also been shown to increase and maintain glutathione:
- Vitamins C and E (they protect glutathione from being oxidized)
- Vitamin D
- Milk Thistle
Glutathione is a super important antioxidant that neutralizes and clears heavy metals and toxins from the body. Protects our DNA from damage, tampers down inflammation and helps fend off heart disease, cancer, neurological decline, dementia and many more of the debilitating diseases. It maintains optimal immunity and keeps our mitochondria pumping. It’s therefore incredibly important we maintain our glutathione levels.
Have a read of our blogs that discuss what depletes glutathione and how to boost it here or via link below.
You can also support your body to make more glutathione by eating foods that are high in sulphur:
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, collards, and cabbage, cauliflower, watercress, asparagus, and parsley
- Poultry, beef, and fish
- Egg yolks
- Cinnamon, cardamom, and curcumin also offer benefits.
- Non-denatured bioactive whey protein (not tolerated in all people)
Or you can take supplements that contain:
- N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC)
- Alpha-lipoic acid
There are also supplements containing actual glutathione, which is especially helpful when your levels are low and if you have genetic SNPs that may cause your levels to become depleted.
You can add to what your body produces by eating foods that are high in antioxidants every day. These tend to be the foods that are the most colourful, for example:
Other good sources of antioxidants include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Green and black tea
And herbs such as:
- Curcumin (also known as turmeric)
The more antioxidants you eat, the better you can counter oxidation and prevent oxidative stress.
- TAKE HERBS that are HIGH in ANTIOXIDANTS
- Green tea
- Curcumin (turmeric)
Other useful antioxidants in supplements that can be taken daily, either separately or together, for ongoing support are:
- Vitamin C
For other blogs in this series please read
- Whaley-Connell A, Pavey BS, Chaudhary K, Saab G, Sowers JR. Renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system intervention in the cardiometabolic syndrome and cardio-renal protection. Ther Adv Cardiovasc Dis. 2007 Oct;1(1):27-35.
- Zhuang S, Yan Y, Daubert RA, Han J, Schnellmann RG. ERK promotes hydrogen peroxide-induced apoptosis through caspase-3 activation and inhibition of Akt in renal epithelial cells. Am J Physiol Renal Physiol. 2007 Jan;292(1):F440-7.
- Agarwal et al. The role of antioxidant therapy in the treatment of male infertility. Hum Fertil (Camb). 2010 Dec;13(4):217-25
- Aouache R, Biquard L, Vaiman D, Miralles F. Oxidative Stress in Preeclampsia and Placental Diseases. Int J Mol Sci. 2018;19(5):1496. Published 2018 May 17.