What is Oxidative Stress?
Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance of antioxidants and free radicals in the body.
Free radicals are produced by the body’s cells during the normal day-to-day metabolic processes. However, these cells also produce antioxidants that neutralize these free radicals. On a general level, the body is able to maintain a balance between antioxidants and free radicals successfully. When there is an imbalance, excessive free radicals can cause large chain chemical reactions in the body. These chemical reactions are known as oxidation. (1)
However, there are many factors that lead to an excessive production of free radicals and oxidative stress. These include:
- Environmental factors such as radiation and pollution
Your body’s natural immune response can also sometimes trigger oxidative stress, even if it is only temporarily. This type of oxidative stress causes mild inflammation in the body, which tends to automatically go away after your immune system fights off an infection or repairs any wear and tear or injury.
However, uncontrolled oxidative stress for an extended period of time can hasten the aging process and also contribute to the development of many medical conditions. (2)
How Does Oxidative Stress Affect Your Body?
While oxidation is a normal and necessary procedure of the body, oxidative stress only occurs when there is an imbalance between the body’s antioxidant activity and free radical activity. When everything is functioning correctly, the free radicals help fight against pathogens that may enter the body, thus protecting against infections.
However, when there are more free radicals present than can be balanced out by antioxidants, these free radicals then start causing damage to the DNA, fatty tissue, and proteins in the body. Since DNA, lipids, and proteins constitute a large part of your body, the damage by free radicals can cause many diseases over time.
Some of the diseases that can be caused by this imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body include:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure or hypertension
- Inflammatory conditions
- Atherosclerosis, a condition that causes hardening of the blood vessels
- Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- Oxidative stress is also a huge contributing factor to aging.
What Are The Risk Factors For Oxidative Stress?
Everyone produces some amount of free radicals in their bodies through natural processes such as inflammation and exercise. Free radicals are also present in the environment, and you may be exposed to them through environmental sources, including:
- Cigarette smoke
- Certain types of pesticides and cleaners
Regularly consuming a diet that is high in sugar and fat, and drinking alcohol regularly, may also lead to increased production of free radicals in the body.
How to Manage and Prevent Oxidative Stress?
While it is impossible to avoid getting exposed to free radicals and oxidative stress completely, there are some things you can do that will minimize the effects of oxidative stress on the body.
The first thing you should do is to increase your levels of antioxidants and reduce the production of free radicals. One way to do this is by ensuring that you are consuming sufficient antioxidants in your diet. By eating at least five servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables daily is the best way of protecting your body from free radicals.
Some of the best fruits and vegetables you should include in your diet to increase antioxidants and reduce free radicals are:
- Citrus fruits
- Dark leafy vegetables
- Fish and nuts
There are also many healthy lifestyle choices you can make that will reduce or prevent oxidative stress. These include:
Having a Regular, Moderately Paced Exercise Routine: A regular, moderate exercise regime is known to boost the natural antioxidant levels in the body and also reduce the damage caused by oxidative stress. (3) Regular exercise is also associated with a longer lifespan, decreased risk of disease and cancer, and fewer effects of aging as well. (4)
Avoid Smoking: You should not only avoid smoking but at the same time, avoiding exposure to second-hand smoke is also important.
Wear Sunscreen: Sunscreen will prevent ultraviolet rays from the sun from causing damage to your skin.
Avoid Overeating: Studies have found that overeating or always eating keeps your body in a prolonged state of oxidative stress. Have your meals at appropriately spaced intervals and also eat small or moderately-sized portions. (3)
While antioxidants and free radicals are part of the natural and healthy functioning of the body, but oxidative stress can occur when there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants. Oxidative stress can cause damage to the body’s cells and tissues, causing many diseases in the long run.
It is not possible to altogether avoid being exposed to free radicals, but making healthy lifestyle choices regarding your diet, environment, and exercise, will keep your body in balance and protect you from the damaging effects of oxidative stress.
- Mittler, R., 2002. Oxidative stress, antioxidants and stress tolerance. Trends in plant science, 7(9), pp.405-410.
- Finkel, T. and Holbrook, N.J., 2000. Oxidants, oxidative stress and the biology of ageing. nature, 408(6809), p.239.
- Poljsak, B., 2011. Strategies for reducing or preventing the generation of oxidative stress. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2011.
- Cdc.gov. (2019). [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].