Growing up, we are taught about the crucial role oxygen plays on earth. The most important thing we learn is that we cannot breathe without it. Oxygen is life, essentially. A bit later on we also learn that it is important for many processes such as burning and growth.
But did you know that the same life-sustaining oxygen also is the fundamental cause of aging? Oxygen causes oxidation when it combines with certain other elements. This same process can be seen outside the body when steel (iron) rusts or a banana turns brown after being unwrapped and exposed to the air.
How can such an essential and beneficial substance case all this? The answer is in a scientific term known as Oxidative Stress.
Oxidative stress is the result of certain oxygen byproducts gone rogue. You see, oxygen is used in the body for various processes including metabolism and energy synthesis.
In any chemical process, there have to be byproducts. In addition to releasing mostly harmless byproducts, these oxygen-fueled reactions also release ‘incomplete’ atoms and molecules called free radicals. I say incomplete because they have an unpaired electron.
Hence, they are actively seeking for that electron to complete them. This makes them highly reactive and unstable. They are essentially looking for anything they can react with so as to gain the extra electron and achieve stability.
How Free Radicals Affect the Body and the Body’s Response
In their quest for stability, free radicals may react with parts of body cells including cell membranes, DNA and proteins. This reaction is known as oxidation. It is the same reaction that causes an exposed apple to turn brown or a piece of metal to rust.
By ‘stealing’ an electron from a cell, a free radical causes damage to that cell, causing it to function defectively. If the damage is extensive, the cell dies.
Now imagine many free radicals attacking many cells in the body. They can cause a lot of havoc. But the body is not without defense. It responds by releasing antioxidants. These are compounds that reduce damage to cells by preventing the formation of free radicals or reacting with them before they can cause damage.
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals by donating one of their electrons without themselves getting unstable. Once stabilized, the free radical is no longer a danger to cells.
How Oxidative Stress Occurs
It is not always that there are enough antioxidants to combat and neutralize free radicals. If the free radicals overwhelm available antioxidants, oxidative stress follows.
This is essentially an imbalance between the number of free radicals and the body’s ability to fend them off using antioxidants. In such a case, free radicals are free to continue their rampage of body cells. As they react with cells and take electrons, they rob crucial components from them. Cell function is severely hampered or completely stopped.
Consequences of Oxidative Stress
When the body is unable to cope with the number of free radicals, it results in health deterioration as cells lose their vitality and some die.
This can damage major organs such as the kidney, heart and lungs5. It can also affect major functions within the body including digestion and immunity6. Here are some of the possible consequences of oxidative stress.
• Heart disease. This leading killer develops after arteries in the heart harden and narrow in a process called atherosclerosis. A reaction between free radicals and bad cholesterol has been linked to this process. It has been discovered that people who have low antioxidant intake tend to be at the highest risk of heart disease11.
• Joint inflammation leading to conditions such as arthritis12.
• Cell damage and death in the brain causes a deterioration of brain health and function. This causes Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease and other forms of dementia. Oxidative stress has been suggested as one of the main contributors to brain aging15.
• Skin damage. Free radicals can also target skin cells. This compromises major skin functions including UV protection. With continued assault from these reactive molecules, the skin shows accelerated signs of aging. In fact, the Free-radical theory of aging suggests that oxidative stress is the main reason why humans grow old16.
• Apart from causing the skin to age, oxidative stress can also lead to other skin conditions including lesions, scarring and overall skin damage17.
• Cancer. For decades, cancer has stumped researchers with a cure still eluding them. In their study of how it comes about, free radicals have been singled out as major suspects17 18 19. Remember cancer is basically caused by malfunctioning cells. Also remember that free radicals damages cells, affecting how they function. You can see how the two connect.
• Lung disorders. Pollutants in the air can increase the amount of free radicals in the lungs, causing oxidative stress as antioxidants are unable to cope. This could lead to various lung diseases including asthma 20 and lung cancer21.
Symptoms of Oxidative Stress
There are certain symptoms that signal oxidative stress. They include chronic fatigue4, muscle or joint pain22, memory loss1, unusually early signs of aging such as greyed hair and wrinkles23, decreased eye sight24 as the eye lenses are damaged and increased susceptibility to infections as your immune system is compromised.
Dealing With Oxidative Stress
Combating oxidative stress is all about returning the balance between free radicals and antioxidants. One way to do this is to make sure the body has access to adequate antioxidants. This involves eating a proper diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, taking supplements and sleeping well.
Dieting and supplements are especially important as they directly increase the number of antioxidants in the body. Some of the best foods include tomatoes, spinach, walnuts, onions and avocados. These foods supply important antioxidants such as glutathione and vitamin C.
As you add more antioxidants, you also need to take action to prevent excessive formation of free radicals. Avoid junk such as fried food and sugary drinks as they increase oxidation. Avoid spending too much time in polluted areas to protect your lungs from free radicals. Also check the sprays and chemicals you use at home. They could be adding free radicals to your body.
Don’t ignore the importance of a good night’s rest. Poor rest causes an uptick in oxidation, meaning more free radicals are produced to cause even more damage.
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