Oxidative Stress and your health. A primer.

Oxidative stress isn’t a sexy subject.  It doesn’t elicit the headlines of other health topics, like cancer (you’ll die!) or heart attacks (you’ll die instantly!).  It doesn’t sell magazines, newspapers, or drive website views.  Most people aren’t even aware what it is or how it can impact their health.  So let’s clear this up a little.  Let’s answer the question: What is oxidative stress and how does it impact my health?

Simply put, oxidative stress occurs when the cells in our body are attacked by substances called free radicals.  Free radicals occur naturally as a result of the chemical processes our body uses to burn fuel for energy.  Think of free radicals as sparks from a fire.  Sparks from a fire occur when we burn fuel (wood) for energy (heat and light).  And just as sparks from a fire can burn their surroundings and cause damage, so too can free radicals.

Picture a fire roaring inside the fireplace in your den.  Sparks occur.  But most don’t do any significant damage.  Sometimes, though, an errant spark flies out and lands on the rug, burning a hole.  That rug is like a cell in our body.  If one spark burns the rug, no big deal (well, it depends on how nice the rug is).  But if there are too many sparks, the rug is destroyed.  This is what happens to our cells when attacked by too many free radicals.  Cells die or don’t function optimally.  The result is unchecked oxidative stress.

How does oxidative stress affect my health? 

Once you understand how oxidative stress effects cell function, it’s easy to visualize how it can negatively affect your health.  As the primary cause of “wear and tear” on our cells, oxidative stress is a major reason our body breaks down. 

Today, oxidative stress is recognized as an underlying cause in several degenerative diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis.  Oxidative stress is also the primary cause of cell aging, and therefore our aging process.  In one sense, oxidative stress is why we get old. 

I said oxidative stress occurs naturally in the body when we burn fuel for energy.  And the resulting free radicals (sparks) damage our cells, leading to disease.  But our body is clever.  It has systems in place using antioxidants to limit the damage free radicals cause.  Controlling oxidative stress is another thing our body brilliantly manages through its own biology.

But, as is to be expected, we have given our bodies too much to handle.  We import damaging free radicals from outside the body in vast quantities.  The biggest suppliers of these extra free radicals include:

  • Sun exposure.
  • Pollution.
  • Chemicals in our environment.
  • Emotional and physical stress.
  • Drugs.
  • Smoke.

Our bodies can’t handle this increased free radical assault.  Unfortunately, the assault is getting more intense every day.  While historically, exposure to sunlight or emotional stress may not have increased, the assault from pollution and chemicals in our environment is at all time highs.  We’ve never had to fight off this many free radicals.  Oxidative stress in our bodies is out of control. 

I hope this helps clarify what oxidative stress is and how it affects our health.  There’s obviously much more that can be discussed, but for now we’ll leave this as our introductory lesson.  I’d love to hear comments and questions.

With understanding, perhaps oxidative stress will get more attention.  Either that or I’m changing the title of this post to “Oxidative Stress: Everything around you will kill you!” 

(Come back for Friday Focus when I’ll discuss how we can protect ourselves from free radicals and oxidative stress with antioxidants)

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2 responses to “Oxidative Stress and your health. A primer.

  1. Pingback: An Unnerving Video Makes its Point | Essentials of Nutrition

  2. Pingback: Why I Take Vitamins | Essentials of Nutrition

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