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Why You NEED to Understand Oxidative Stress -- and How to Avoid It

Oxidative stress is now recognized as a leading cause of chronic disease and aging. It occurs when free radicals -- toxic oxygen molecules produced by normal body processes but also via external sources like stress and pollution -- spiral out of control.

Antioxidants from healthy foods like fruits and vegetables are still your best line of defense against oxidative stress.

Even the healthiest among us have free radicals in our systems. However, free radicals are normally kept under wraps where they cannot cause great harm to the body. When free radicals exist in your body in excess, the harmful condition known as oxidative stress occurs.

"There is evidence that free radicals are a predominant factor in the etiology of a wide range of diseases and conditions such as cancer, diabetes, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer's disease and rheumatoid arthritis," says free radical and antioxidant expert Li Li Ji, Ph.D. of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

How Free Radicals Take Over Your System

There are two major ways that free radicals can overwhelm your body. One is that you've been exposed to an abundance of them due to environmental pollutants and other toxins, including:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Alcohol
  • Automobile exhaust
  • Air pollution
  • Bacterial, fungal, or viral infections
  • Asbestos
  • Radiation

The other is that your body is lacking in the healthy compounds it needs to fight free radicals: antioxidants. Antioxidants can be vitamins, minerals or enzymes, and they exist in foods and certain supplements. Because most Americans do not eat healthy diets -- ones that include fruits, vegetables and other whole foods -- and instead eat diets rich in processed fast foods, many of us are seriously lacking in these health-giving compounds.

In reality, most of us experience a combination of these effects in daily life. In other words, your diet may not be the best and you're also exposed to regular second-hand cigarette smoke and alcohol during your daily happy-hour meeting with co-workers, or to exhaust fumes on your drive home. The result is most assuredly oxidative stress.

Mental Stress Leads to Oxidative Stress

Your emotions and exposure to external stress also impact the amount of oxidative stress going on in your body. Take one study of 39 women, aged 20 to 50, who had been experiencing extreme, ongoing stress while caring for a chronically ill child. When compared with 19 similar women who were not undergoing stress, the stressed women had significantly higher levels of oxidative stress in their bodies.

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This oxidative stress, the researchers pointed out, damages DNA, including telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes that carry genes. As we age, telomeres naturally shorten and die; however, chronic stress accelerates this process. As increasing numbers of cells reach the end of the telomeres and die, physical symptoms of aging appear, including:

  • Weakened muscles
  • Wrinkles
  • Fading eyesight and hearing
  • Organ failure
  • Diminished thinking abilities

"Everybody's trying to figure out what causes aging and premature aging. We all know that stress seems to age people -- just look at the aging of our presidents after four years," said Dennis H. Novack of Drexel University College of Medicine, who studies the link between emotions and health. "[The study] demonstrated that there is no such thing as a separation of mind and body -- the very molecules in our bodies are responsive to our psychological environment."

The Toll of Oxidative Stress on Your Body

Aside from being a direct influence on the way your body ages, oxidative stress has been linked to a wide array of diseases, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Hypertension
  • Cancer
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
  • Asthma
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Huntington's disease
  • Lou Gehrig's disease
  • Autism
  • Stroke

Oxidative Stress: Tips for Fighting Back

Although we all experience some level of oxidative stress -- it's normal and, in fact, necessary for our very existence -- this does not mean that you must sit idly by and let an excess level do its damage. Here are four key ways to help prevent oxidative stress and all of its related conditions:

  1. Eat an antioxidant-rich diet. Antioxidants help prevent oxidation, but you must fortify your diet with them by eating fruits, vegetables, nuts and other whole foods regularly to get the benefit. You can check out our past article for a list of the top 20 antioxidant foods and six disease-fighting super antioxidants.

  2. Exercise sensibly. Exercise does, in fact, cause oxidative stress in your body, which is why doing too much of it, or at too strenuous a level, can do your body more harm than good.

    However, "If you build your fitness level gradually, your body's antioxidant defenses will improve faster than the rate at which free-radical generation increases," says Alex Sevanian, Ph.D, professor of pathology in the department of molecular pharmacology and toxicology in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Southern California. "Exercise enhances the body's ability to handle stress more than it harms the body through stress."

Exercise does create oxidative stress, but while too much may be harmful, the right amount will improve your health in the long-run.

  1. Consider chiropractic wellness care. People who have received chiropractic care had higher mean levels of serum thiol, primary antioxidants that serve as a measure of health status, than those who received no chiropractic care, according to a study in the Journal of Vertebral Subluxation Research.

    "Going through life, we experience physical, chemical, and emotional stress. These stresses affect the function of the nervous system. We hypothesized that these disturbances in nerve function could affect oxidative stress and DNA repair on a cellular level," said Dr. Christopher Kent, one of the study's authors. "Chiropractic care appears to improve the ability of the body to adapt to stress."

  2. Take time to relax. A stressful, anxiety-filled daily routine will wear you down, no matter how healthy your lifestyle may otherwise be. Said Elissa Epel, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) who helped conduct the telomere study mentioned above, "The findings emphasize the importance of managing life stress, to take it seriously if one feels stressed, to give your body a break, and make life changes that promote well-being."

Recommended Reading

Six Disease-Fighting Super Antioxidants You are Likely Not Getting Enough Of

Don't Stress Out About It, but Stress is Now Proven to Cause Weight Gain in Women: Five Key Stress-Reduction Tips


Study Confirms That Stress Helps Speed Aging

Oxis Research

Men's Fitness: Winning Against Free Radicals

Medical News Today: Chiropractic Influence on Oxidative Stress and DNA Repair

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