What is oxidative stress and how it contributes to cellular damage

Experts say a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help you ward off infections like colds and flu, because they contain immune-boosting antioxidants. Fortunately we can also take in nutrients via supplementation, and we’ll share why this is so important.

What are antioxidants? They are certain vitamins (A, C, E), some minerals such as selenium and zinc, and other nutrients that protect and repair cells from damage caused by free radicals. Many experts believe this damage plays a part in a number of chronic diseases, including hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), cancer, and arthritis. Free radicals can also interfere with your immune system. So fighting off damage with antioxidants helps keep your immune system strong, making you better able to ward off colds, flu, and other infections. (WebMD, 2012)

The body needs a variety of antioxidants to accomplish a variety of tasks. Not all antioxidants can go everywhere in the body. Some antioxidants can only work inside our cells, like glutathione, and certain enzyme based antioxidants. Some antioxidants are small enough to cross the blood brain barrier (BBB) and protect our brain from excess oxidation which contributes to neurodegeneration and plaque buildup in the brain. Antioxidants protect our cells from a secondary form of oxidation, also called “oxidative stress”, which yields free radicals.

What is “oxidative stress”?
The terms oxidative stress and free radicals have become familiar in recent years, but what does this mean? If you want a detailed explanation, please check out our article called Anti-Oxidants and Oxidative Stress  in the Library Section of our Blog. “Oxidation” is the chemist’s term for the process of removing electrons from an atom or molecule. Oxidation occurs whenever our cells use oxygen.  We must have oxidation in order to survive, without it we would die. However, oxidation can yield harmful byproducts after our cells burn an oxygen molecule; these harmful compounds are called “free radicals”. A free radical is a stray, unpaired electron.

Free Radicals Electrons don’t like to be unpaired, therefore an electron will seek out other electrons by stealing them from healthy tissues in order to stabilize itself. After stealing the electron, a damaged leftover cell that unwillingly gave up an electron is left behind. This damaged cell functions less optimally than before, and if it gets damaged by enough free radicals can become crippled and not do its job properly, or die prematurely. This process continues on and on, free radicals damaging tissues unless it can be stopped with an antioxidant.

Ways that we increase oxidation are through exercise, inflammation, stress, poor diet, smoking, exposure to radiation, illicit drugs, several medications, and pollutants to name a few. Being alive requires oxidation, there is no stopping it, and therefore it is important to have a healthy diet to absorb these free radicals which result from oxidation.

Exercise increases oxidation because anything that considerably speeds up our metabolism yields more free radicals. Exercise is good, we need it! However, we must consume foods that provide healthy amounts of antioxidants to neutralize the harmful byproducts that exercise can leave behind. We’ve all heard of Marathoners who have had a heart attack at a young age. Free radical damage can not only affect our cells, but can scar the inner smooth surface of our blood vessels. If these tiny micro-tears are not properly repaired by the body, they can create spaces that allow arterial plaque to take hold and build up.

We have defenses against oxidative stress: substances in our diets, for example, Vitamin C and E, can donate electrons and end the destructive chain reactions, as well as aid in repair. We all experience different levels of oxidative stress. The key to slowing down aging and age-related sickness is reflected in our ability to cope with oxidative stress over time.

How does an antioxidant work?
Have you ever seen the movie “The bodyguard” with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston? At the end of the movie the bodyguard hero, played by Kevin Costner, jumps in front of Whitney Houston as the villain attempts to shoot her. Kevin Costner, the bodyguard, “takes the bullet”, sparing Whitney Houston and saving the day. This is how an antioxidant works. Antioxidants “take the bullet” of free radicals, so your joints, tissues and cells don’t have to. An antioxidant has the unusual ability to safely absorb free radicals, therefore prevent further damage to your cells and tissues. An antioxidant does this by generously sharing its outer ring electrons to bond with harmful free radicals. The greater the number of electrons in the outer ring, the more powerful the antioxidant due its higher absorbency potential. Antioxidants essentially “mop up” free radicals in the body.

How do you recognize a lack of antioxidants in the body?
Many common health issues are a result of short or long term Free Radical damage. Before experiencing serious health problems, it is recommended that you get tested to identify whether you have a lack of antioxidants in your body. Even if you are taking antioxidants, we can assess if they are working properly.


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