Last updated on April 25, 2021
In this article: Prevent premature, accelerated aging and reduce risks for disease.
What Is Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress is an important consideration in aging. In fact, it maybe ultimately responsible for the rate at which your body ages, and most important is that there are ways to control its outcomes.
While the human body needs oxygen to live, the act of breathing can also cause a harmful chain reaction though the formation of reactive molecules known as free radicals.
To put is simply, oxidative stress is the result of formation of reactive oxygen species and similar compounds, which may overwhelm the body’s ability to detoxify free radicals or repair damage arising from them that can lead to a wide range of diseases, premature, poor and accelerated aging.
Think of it as a constant battle of good and bad, or positive and negative. For the most part, the good will cancel out the bad, or fix any arising damage. However, there are times when the body’s detox/defense mechanisms are compromised and oxidizing species take hold and cause deep damage. This is why consuming an abundance of antioxidant rich food is critical to our overall health and wellbeing.
What Promotes Oxidative Stress?
While free radicals do occur naturally within the body and are then fought by the body’s naturally occurring antioxidants, various external factors further stimulate their (radical) production.
Every single day our body comes into contact with substances, either environmentally or via consumption, which promote formation of free radicals that promote damage to cells and DNA. There are some sources that are worse offenders than others are, and which you should do your best to avoid.
- Overconsumption of sugars, calories and/or refined carbs leading to the mitochondria releasing an “exhaust,” of higher levels of free radicals that results from burned fuel when food is converted to energy
- Excessive alcohol consumption leads to a rise in levels of cytokines, which are inflammatory molecules linked to oxidative stress
- Hydrogenated fats (artificially made trans that are modified to remain solid at room temperature)
- Various prescription medications
- Cigarette fumes, either directly or second hand exposing you to more than 4000 toxic chemicals that promote oxidative stress
- Excessive UV ray exposure (sunning)
- Psychological and emotional stressors
- Too little or even too much exercise, as excessive physical activity causes an increase in oxidative stress. Typically, too much is considered more than 60 minutes daily and too little is less than 30 minutes 5 days a week
- Air pollutants
- Chronic stress
- Barbecued and charbroiled foods containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
- Exposure to environmental molds
- Poor liver and digestive detox
- Poor sleep and sleep deprivation
The Dangers Of Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress is unavoidable, as every single day or bodies are in a state of back and forth production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and neutralization with antioxidants. To put it in perspective, the reactive oxygen species is not necessarily oxygen, but a compound bearing a strong negative charge and which can interfere with a number of cells and reactions within the body giving rise to undesirable outcomes.
Antioxidants are the compounds, which can donate an electron to the reactive oxygen species, making it stable once more and unable to do damage. At the same time, the antioxidant, which donated a species, is not a direct threat either.
ROS do have some useful purposes, so you should never seek for a complete reduction of numbers (highly improbable at any rate), but left to get out of hand typically have serious repercussions.
ROS have been negatively implicated in the following:
- Premature Aging – resulting from damage to DNA strands or bases, leading to imperfect replication of cells
- Cancer Development – also related to damage of DNA, some new cells may lack the ability to self-regulate (kill themselves at a certain age/size) and continue growing uncontrollably
- Heart Disease – by causing damage to blood vessel walls, platelets and other compounds aggregate and form blockages and initiate undesirable inflammatory processes
- Impaired Immune Function – lading to increased frequency of infections associated with periods of high stress
- Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease – these are complex neurological diseases that usually occur later in life and have a host of contributing factors underlying development. Oxidative stress is one such contributing factor.
The Connection Between Aging And Oxidative Stress
Most people do not consider the normal rate of aging, nor do they consider what to expect.
Consider that you are a thirty something year old women, who just 3 years prior would regard your appearance as “radiant.” Move forward to today, and you have quite a few grey hairs, crow’s feet around your eyes and skin that looks lifeless.
The question you should be asking yourself is if this is normal for a woman in her thirties and if such drastic changes are normal within the course of just a few years?
The answer should almost certainly be no, since aging should be a gradually slow process, not something that is markedly visible over just three short years.
What is the major culprit of premature aging? Oxidative stress.
The normal processes that occur inside the body but which may have gotten out of hand, causing damage to otherwise normal cells compromising their regenerative and restorative abilities.
How Oxidative Stress Accelerates Aging
Oxidative stress causes damage to levels both structurally and beyond, affecting as deep as DNA replication. As such, its effects can be diverse and devastating, affecting any part of the body. Typically, the most affected parts that accelerate the aging process include:
- Skin – though oxidative stress resulting from food consumption is a popular method of premature aging, when it comes to the skin the effect of UV rays from the sun is most pronounced. UV rays have a way of penetrating the layers of skin, damaging cell membranes, and affecting normal replication of some skin cells. In addition to drying out of these cells, permanent loss of collagen and elastin structural proteins may be accelerated as well.
- Promotes Heart Disease – in people with normal heart function, one of the most common traits is an unobstructed circulatory system. ROS can initiate a cascade of inflammation and abnormal clotting inside blood vessels, leading to complete or partial blockage. This occurs more frequently in individuals with poor lipid profiles, since fat deposits are by nature pro-oxidant and pro-inflammatory. These blockages can lead to heart attacks, stroke, or long-term heart failure.
- Cancer – cancer is complex, and usually has numerous contributing factors, but ROS play a large part in development of the disease. Oxidation can cause damage beyond the cellular level, as far as DNA, which would result in synthesis of defective cells on a larger basis. This change to DNA explains why cancer is said to run in families, as it can have a genetic link. Oxidative damage can kill cancerous cells in their infancy, but is often likely to initiate the disease.
- Promotes Inflammatory Disease – encompasses heart disease, but also extends to conditions of the brain and other organ systems. Loss of function of these critical organ systems is a major contributor of aging, as either detox systems fail (liver, kidneys) or the body’s central processor the brain becomes unable to do what it is supposed to. As such, the body deteriorates and aging is accelerated as oxidative stress takes hold.
- Slows Metabolism – a healthy metabolism is essential to keeping up energy levels and ensuring cells get the nutrients they require in a timely manner. However, oxidative stress can result in damage occurring to the powerhouse units within cells, the mitochondria, effectively reducing the efficiency with which cells can properly breakdown and assimilate nutrients.
How Diet Helps Reduce Oxidative Stress
Diet should be the front and center of holistic living, but surprisingly not many people today place much emphasis on it. Why? Because of cheap, convenience foods. It’s much easier to pick up a donut on the go, than spend the time necessary to prepare a healthy breakfast. This comes at a great cost.
What cost you might ask? Your life. Yes, as morbid as it may sound, each and every time you opt for tasty junk food, instead of healthy meals, you are chipping away a little of your health at a time.
Though it may not be obvious immediately, over time and especially as you get older, the effects are cumulative and sadly oftentimes detected too late.
The foods you consume can either help control abnormal oxidative stressors on your body, or pave the way for accelerated damage, resulting in premature aging, or development of chronic inflammatory diseases (think of heart disease, arthritis, neurodegenerative diseases).
So how can diet help reduce the oxidative stress process?
Reducing Heart Disease Risk Factors
Eating a healthy diet helps prevent heart disease, which exasperates oxidative stress in more than one way.
- There is more to heart disease than one single factor, which most people believe to be cholesterol values. While high cholesterol values may be worrisome, it becomes dangerous when oxidized. Oxidized cholesterol is what adheres to vessel walls, starting blockages known as atherosclerotic plaques.
- Oxidative stress also causes damage to the blood vessel wall lining, resulting in platelets aggregating in an attempt to fix the issue. When atherosclerotic plaques and platelets congregate in the same place, it is the recipe for a major blockage, and explains often why people need coronary bypass surgeries.
Fights Premature Aging
The effects of oxidative damage on the skin is especially visible, but can be fought by eating plenty of vegetables rich in antioxidants. Tomatoes and leafy greens have been shown to reduce the effects of UV radiation on the skin, limiting the damage it can do.
Be sure to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, as some may contain unique phytonutrients that can boost detoxification of waste material and keep skin youthful and radiant.
Helps Preserve DNA Integrity
Mutations to cells or damage to DNA is one of the major factors contributing to cancer, and is caused by cumulative loads of oxidative stress. However, a diet that is rich in natural antioxidants is able to significantly reduce the development of cancer, since DNA, strands can remain undamaged, and mutated cells can be destroyed by the body’s immune system.
Owing to the fact that the immune system is usually impaired while under the influence of high oxidative stress load, this helps explain why cancer may explode in a matter of mere months.
Antioxidants Are The Key
To understand how antioxidants help reduce oxidative damage requires you to have a little knowledge of high school chemistry.
However, to keep it simple…
- Oxidative compounds (ROS in particular) are missing an electron in their structure, which is supplied by the antioxidant rich foods. This makes the compound inactive, and nullifies its danger potential.
- The body also has natural antioxidant enzymes, which are powerful but can be suppressed by high levels of oxidative species.
The following key antioxidants that scavenge and fight free radicals are not manufactured by the body and so must be obtained through diet.
“Lipid-soluble vitamin E is concentrated in the hydrophobic interior site of cell membrane and is the principal defense against oxidant-induced membrane injury” (Birben E, Sahiner UM, Sackesen C, Erzurum S, Kalayci O., Oxidative Stress and Antioxidant Defense).
- Daily requirements – 15 IU for men; 12 IU for women
- Sunflower Seeds
- Swiss Chard
- Turnip Greens
- Beet Greens
- Mustard Greens
“Primarily, B-carotene has been found to react with peroxyl, hydroxyl, and superoxide radicals” (Birben E, Sahiner UM, Sackesen C, Erzurum S, Kalayci O., Oxidative Stress and Antioxidant Defense).
Beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A in the body.
- Egg yolks
“Water-soluble vitamin C (ascorbic acid) provides intracellular and extracellular aqueous-phase antioxidant capacity primarily by scavenging oxygen free radicals. It converts vitamin E free radicals back to vitamin E. Its plasma levels have been shown to decrease with age” (Birben E, Sahiner UM, Sackesen C, Erzurum S, Kalayci O., Oxidative Stress and Antioxidant Defense).
- Daily Requirements – 90 mg for men; 75 mg for women; 35 extra mg for smokers
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruits: oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes
“GSH is highly abundant in all cell compartments and is the major soluble antioxidant. GSH/GSSG ratio is a major determinant of oxidative stress” (Birben E, Sahiner UM, Sackesen C, Erzurum S, Kalayci O., Oxidative Stress and Antioxidant Defense).
Glutathione (GSH) is an important antioxidant in counteracting oxidative stress. It is highly abundant in cell compartments within the body, but significantly decreases in levels though aging or with disease, which causes a reduction in its levels.
It is therefore necessary to supplement glutathione through diet as much as possible. In food sources, GSH comes in two categories, foods that contain it and foods that stimulate its production.
Highest concentrations of GHS are always found in foods when they are eaten raw.
Foods That Contain Glutathione
- Asparagus – 28.3 GSH content
- Avocado – 27.7 GSH content
- Spinach – 11.4 GSH content
- Okra – 11.3 GSH content
- Broccoli – 9.1 GSH content
- Cantaloupe – 9.0 GSH content
- Tomato – 9.0 GSH content
- Carrot – 7.9 GSH content
- Grapefruit – 7.9 GSH content
- Orange – 7.3 GSH content
- Zucchini – 7.0 GSH content
- Strawberry – 6.9 GSH content
- Watermelon – 6.6 GSH content
- Papaya – 5.8 GSH content
- Red bell pepper – 5.5 GSH content
- Peach – 5.0 GSH content
- Lemon – 4.8 GSH content
- Mango – 4.3 GSH content
- Banana – 4.1 GSH content
- Cauliflower – 4.0 GSH content
- Walnuts – 3.7 GSH content
- Cucumbers – 3.5 GSH content
- Green bell peppers – 3.4 GSH content
- Apples – 3.3 GSH content
- Grapes – 2.7 GSH content
Foods That Stimulate Glutathione Production
- Brussels sprouts
- Black cumin
- Milk Thistle
Selenium is a key co-factor for glutathione.
Food Sources Of Selenium
- Brazil nuts
Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA)
ALA promotes the synthesis of GSH to increase its levels
Food Sources of ALA
- Brussels sprouts
- Rice bran
- Red meat and organ meat
Key Lifestyle Choices To Reduce Oxidative Stress
- Eat Lots Of Brightly Colored Vegetables And Fruits – be sure to consume a wide variety of colored fruits and vegetables to ensure you get all possible phytonutrients they contain
- Calories – Eat the appropriate amount of calories for your activity levels
- Avoid junk and processed food – Eat whole real food and stay away from junk food, refined carbs, and simple sugars.
- Exercise regularly – Get 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week
- Meditate And Take It Slow – as mentioned, psychological and emotional stress can take a toll on your life, manifesting as the result of oxidative stress. Meditation is proven to reduce your oxidative load, and makes for a healthier body, mind and soul
- Avoid The Worst Offenders – though not impossible to avoid everything, you can definitely control most of them, don’t smoke cigarettes and moderate alcohol intake, both are easily avoidable.
- Reduce stress and take care of yourself
Oxidative stress is unavoidable and inevitable, and is in fact a normal part of our body chemistry. However, vigilance is needed to make sure it is well managed and contained; a major part of this is to consume foods rich in antioxidants to counter the effects of these oxidizing threats.
As long as you consume a variety of vegetables and fruits, you are likely to get enough antioxidants. However, you must also make deliberate efforts to remove the unhealthy foods from your diet, including sugar, fats, and refined carbs or trying to cancel out the good with the bad will not play out very well.
It is not a given that supplemental antioxidants will provide the same effect as food, so hit the farmer’s market ASAP!
Stay well and take care!