What is oxidative stress? To understand the causes of oxidative stress, it’s essential to understand the two major players: free radicals and antioxidants.
What Are Free Radicals?
Free radicals are unstable molecules that are missing an electron – and therefore have an uneven number of unpaired electrons. They could be missing an electron for a number of reasons, including the environment or natural aging. Because of this electron imbalance, free radicals are unstable and highly reactive.1
How Free Radicals Cause Oxidative Stress
Free radicals are pesky little molecules. Missing an electron of their own, they are constantly trying to steal electrons from other molecules so that they can become stable. When a free radical steals an electron from a nearby molecule, that molecule loses an electron and becomes a free radical itself. This can lead to a chain reaction that may eventually damage cells.
These chemical reactions lead to a process called oxidation. Too much oxidation is known as oxidative stress. Oxidative stress can alter cell DNA, affect cell membranes, and harm cells in many different ways. This can lead to a variety of human health issues, which are discussed below.2,3,4
What Is The Role Of Antioxidants?
Given that free radicals are so volatile, what, if anything, can be done to slow down or prevent oxidative stress? This is the role of antioxidants. Antioxidants are your body’s best defense against free radicals.5
How Antioxidants Support your Body’s Defense Against Free Radicals
Antioxidants are molecules that can give away an electron without becoming unstable themselves. When an antioxidant gives an electron to a free radical (or a free radical takes one), the free radical is neutralized and becomes less reactive.6
How Can Oxidative Stress Affect The Body?
Some amount of oxidation is normal and even necessary in your body. But too much oxidation, aka oxidative stress, can lead to problems.7
Free radical activity can damage DNA, fatty tissue, and proteins in your body. Over time, this may lead to issues with:
- Visible signs of aging
- Cell health
- And more8,9
What Are Some Potential Causes Of Oxidative Stress?
Chemical reactions are set off by free radicals, but what creates free radicals in the first place? Free radicals are a natural byproduct of normal cell processes — but several external and internal factors can lead to excess free radical production, including:
- A diet high in sugar, fat, fried foods, and alcohol
- Smoking cigarettes
- Some pesticides and cleaners
- Environmental pollution
- Overexposure to X-rays
- Ultraviolet rays10,11,12
How Can You Help Support Your Body’s Defense Against Oxidative Stress?
Free radicals are pervasive. There’s no way to banish them completely. But there are things you can do to help manage the stress they put on your body. Anything you can do to increase your antioxidants and decrease your free radicals is a great place to start. This helps manage the causes of oxidative stress before they occur.13 Here are some specific ways you can do that.
Eat More Fruits And Vegetables
While your body naturally produces some antioxidants, many will need to come from your diet. Eating five servings of vegetables and fruits per day is a great way to provide your body with the antioxidants it needs to protect itself. Here are some veggies and fruits that are high in antioxidants:
- Spinach, curly kale, and other leafy greens14,15
Drink Your Antioxidants
Many popular beverages are also rich in antioxidants, which makes sense because they’re derived from plants. Here are a few that score high in antioxidant activity:
- Coffee (just make sure to skip the cream and sugar)
- Green tea
- Black tea
- Pomegranate juice (unsweetened)
- Cranberry juice (unsweetened)
- Red wine16 (in moderation)
Seek Out Flavonoids
Flavonoids provide antioxidants that help your body fight off free radicals. They are found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and other plant products. In addition to all of the extra fruits and veggies you’re eating see if you can incorporate some flavonoid compound foods, too.
- Dark chocolate (72% or higher, and in moderation)
- Beans and legumes17,18
Adopt A Regular Exercise Routine
You probably don’t need to hear another reason why exercise is good for you. But here goes: exercise can help support your body’s natural defense against damage caused by free radicals. Regular exercise can help support heart health, healthy blood sugar levels, and healthy cell growth — all of which can be negatively impacted by free radicals.19,20 Physical activity is considered a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle.
Try An Antioxidant Supplement
To increase your antioxidant intake, a supplement is a great option. Look for a product that contains sources of plant-based antioxidants, like Foundation Phytonutrients.21,22
If You Smoke, Quit
Cigarette smoke and secondhand smoke increase free radicals in your body. Smoke also depletes some of your body’s natural antioxidants, like vitamin E and vitamin C. This leads to more free radicals and fewer antioxidants to defend against them.23
Try To Avoid Pesticides By Buying Organic Produce
Pesticides are a major source of free radicals.24 To minimize your risk of exposure, try to buy organic produce when you can. If you don’t have access to organic produce, try to avoid produce on the “dirty dozen” list.
The dirty dozen list names fruits and veggies that are particularly high in pesticides. It includes things like peaches, apples, strawberries, celery, spinach, potatoes, and tomatoes. Buy these items organic whenever you can.25,26
Wear Sunscreen Every Day
Sunscreen can help keep UV rays from deeply penetrating your skin and generating free radicals. Be sure to pick a sunscreen that offers adequate protection from UVA rays, and slather on a thick coat.27
Get Plenty Of Sleep
Sleep helps your body recharge and remove free radicals that accumulate during your awake time. Essentially, sleep is like one big antioxidant. So, pack in those zzz’s in the name of health.28
Stress Less About Oxidative Stress
While oxidative stress can be damaging to your health, there are plenty of things you can do to help your body naturally fight back. Remember this simple mantra: more good and less bad. Remember to increase your antioxidant intake when you can – take those supplements, eat those fruits, and drink that unsweetened coffee or tea. Similarly, watch some of those actions that may be increasing free radical production in your body. You got this.
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