Sooner or later, it happens to all of us. It might start with those once barely visible fine lines becoming more prominent, a back that suddenly starts to get achy after a few hours of gardening or not remembering where you put your sunglasses when they’re on top of your head. We tend to dismiss all of these things as normal signs of aging, but could there be something else that’s encouraging their onset?
It’s true that we can’t avoid aging, but if you look around you’ll see that we all seem to be aging at different rates. Some people might look and feel like they’re 60 when they’re really in their mid-40s, while 90-year-olds are doing laps around them and looking not a day over 70. What gives?
It turns out that not everything about how we age is genetic or placed in the hands of luck. Oxidative stress, which is the result of an overload of free radicals in the body, plays a crucial role in the aging process –including our susceptibility to age-related diseases. What is oxidative stress, what does it do to the body, and how can you avoid it? Let’s find out.
What Is Oxidative Stress?
Free radicals and oxidative stress have received a great deal of media coverage in recent years. There are both some pluses and minuses to this. It’s good because the more we know about protecting our health, the better. The downside is that most of us walk around being given advice on how to reduce oxidative stress but have no real working concept of what it is.
Explaining free radicals and oxidative stress requires a journey into the world of chemistry. If your palms get sweaty just thinking about this, relax – there’s no quiz at the end.
Let’s start by saying that oxidation is the byproduct of our cells being hard at work. Our cells process everything that enters our bodies, including food, air, medications, etc. The body’s cells take all of this stuff, good and bad, and the mitochondria convert it to energy. Oxidation is the end product, basically the leftovers, of this process.
Free radicals are molecules that have lost an electron due to oxidation. Because they’ve lost an electron, they’re running around and scavenging for a new electron to steal from somewhere else. When free radicals grab what they need from an electron donor, some instability results.
Not only is the donating molecule compromised but free radicals are notoriously unstable and quick to react with cellular macromolecules – think along the lines of DNA and essential amino acids. What happens when something comes along and starts messing with our DNA? Well, potentially a lot of really bad things. This is why too much oxidative stress, produced by an abundance of free radicals, can be harmful to your health.
In addition to being the byproduct of cellular energy conversion, free radicals are also produced by the body when fighting an infection, combating inflammation or working to detoxify itself from toxic substances, including those that are inhaled. Diet and lifestyle both play important roles in minimizing the effects of oxidative stress.
Is There a Difference Between Oxidative Stress and Oxidative Damage?
Oxidative stress and oxidative damage have become popular buzzwords, and you’ve probably heard them used interchangeably. However, they do mean different things.
Oxidative stress is the burden placed on your body when the free radicals are being produced faster and in greater numbers than your body can handle. Oxidative damage is what happens after oxidative stress has done its work. The goal is to reduce the levels of oxidative stress on the body, so that oxidative damage doesn’t occur.
Effects of Oxidative Stress
The problem really isn’t with free radicals alone. In fact, free radicals are necessary from a physiological standpoint. The problem arises when our bodies become overrun with them. We can compare the effects of oxidative stress with regular everyday stress – a little is normal and healthy, but you’ll eventually feel the toll if it gets out of hand.
Oxidative stress has the ability to affect every aspect of our health, from the appearance of our skin to our susceptibility to age-related diseases. Oxidative stress can result in cellular malfunction and cause mutations with the DNA. Some of the most serious diseases we deal with today are thought to be the result of oxidative damage.
Some of the most common health conditions that are thought to be caused, at least in part, by oxidative stress include:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Autoimmune diseases and inflammatory disorders
- Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s Disease
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Skin related premature aging
- Sun damage
It’s important that we not look at this list and view it as all-inclusive. Oxidative stress can have a significant impact on our physical and emotional health, including causing us to look and feel old before our time.
Symptoms of Oxidative Stress
So, how do you know if you’re suffering from oxidative stress? Well, we pretty much all are, at least to some degree. Our bodies are continually working to fight the effects of free radicals. When everything is in check, and the body isn’t overwhelmed by free radicals, you usually don’t feel the effects of the oxidation process. However, when things are out of balance, your body will send you a few signals.
Fatigue is probably one of the most common signs of oxidative stress. When our bodies are so hard at work, fighting off free radicals, we feel this burden in the form of fatigue. Unfortunately, some causes of free radicals – like excessive daily stress – can worsen fatigue. If you just can’t seem to work up the energy that you once had, oxidative stress could be to blame.
Oxidative stress manifests itself physically in other ways, too. For instance, memory loss, trouble concentrating and headaches can also be signs of oxidative stress. Many people also see the visible symptoms of free radical overload every day when they look in the mirror. Oxidative stress prematurely ages our cells, and this means we’ll see the effects in premature wrinkling and even those pesky gray hairs that start sprouting up before you’re ready.
Avoiding and Recovering from Oxidative Stress
The big question is, what can we do about oxidative stress? Fortunately, none of us have to become the victim of oxidative damage. There are multiple approaches that you can take to reducing free radical overload and for recovering from the oxidative damage that might already exist.
Address Environmental Exposures
Except for those of us that work in environments where there is known exposure to pollutants, many of us don’t give much thought to how our immediate environment affects us. You might consider having your home air and water quality tested and then installing filtration systems as appropriate. Taking steps like bringing more plants into your home, landscaping with plants that are known to be great air purifiers, or even placing a pretty Himalayan salt lamp on your work desk can help purify the environment.
Work to Eliminate Stress
Chronic stress produces an inflammatory response that increases free radical production. Taking steps to keep your stress under control is an important measure for reducing the effects of free radicals on your health.
Everyone has a different approach to managing stress. Some people just need a little bit of time by themselves to decompress, while others might need to spend 30 minutes a day practicing mindful meditation. The goal is to begin by discovering the activities that lower your stress level.
For example, if your circle of friends is big on gratitude journaling but making the time to sit down and then coming up with something to be grateful for stresses you out, then don’t do it. If you’ve tried meditation several times but find that you’re twitchy and the silence makes you uncomfortable, then this probably isn’t the best stress-relieving method for you – at least right now.
There is no shortage of blogs and articles offering solutions to banish stress. Read a little, explore and then find the easiest and most comfortable way for you to personally manage stress. If you’re suffering from stress to the point that it interferes with your daily life, it’s always wise to speak with a physician or therapist who can work with you to find a solution.
Be Careful with the Sun
Spending a little time out in the sun is a wonderful thing. We need exposure to sunlight for vitamin D. Still, you don’t want to overdo it. Free radical damage and oxidative stress from sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancers. Make sure to slather on a non-toxic sunscreen before heading outdoors to prevent that damage from occurring.
Get Some Exercise
Whether it’s going for a walk every evening or pushing yourself into an Ironman challenge, regular physical activity is important for mitigating the effects of oxidative stress on your body. Regular physical exercise comes with a bounty of benefits, including a more effective metabolism, healthier skin, slower aging and a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease.
Kick Those Bad Habits
We all have them. Whether it’s smoking, drinking or not getting enough sleep because you habitually stay up too late binge-watching your latest obsession or scrolling through social media (late-night tech use is counterproductive to healthy sleep habits, by the way), there’s probably something you’re purposefully doing that increases the free radical load in your body.
If you smoke, do what’s needed to quit. Smoking produces an incredible amount of oxidative damage. Alcohol consumption isn’t far behind, especially if you indulge more than what is considered occasional use by current guidelines. These are the big ones, but poor sleep habits, a sedentary lifestyle, a junk food addiction, and even being prone to road rage can boost your free radical load.
Get Your Sleep
Speaking of habits that can lead to oxidative damage, poor sleep patterns can get in the way of your body’s natural recovery process. When you’re asleep, your body is hard at work with cellular repair and renewal. Your body needs a certain amount of time to complete these processes, usually around 7-9 hours –which not so coincidentally aligns with the amount of sleep the average person needs to feel completely rested.
Do It with Diet
Diet is a major contributor to oxidative stress in our society today. At every turn, we’re bombarded with fast-food restaurants and convenience foods that take no longer than a few minutes to move from kitchen to dining room table. When you’re busy, these things seem like a convenience, but they may also have a disastrous effect on your health.
Plant-based diets that are high in servings of fruits and vegetables are incredibly effective in fighting oxidative stress. Many plant-based foods are packed with antioxidants – nature’s elixir for oxidative stress. Foods like berries, dark leafy greens, citrus fruits, broccoli, onions, green tea, turmeric, cinnamon, and yummy dark chocolate are packed with the antioxidants your body needs.
Saying Farewell to Oxidative Stress
You have the power to control the damage caused by free radicals in your body. Working to reduce oxidative stress can keep you healthier and have you looking, feeling and acting more youthful and energized. It’s all about making yourself a priority and providing the body with what it needs to truly be healthy. What would you do with more vitality, mental clarity, gorgeous skin, and longer life to enjoy all of it? Say farewell to oxidative stress and begin living your best life today.