Oxidative stress describes an imbalance in the body between free radicals and antioxidants. Free radicals are essentially oxygen-carrying molecules in the body that have an uneven number of electrons. This makes them highly reactive and means they can cause damage to all kinds of cells. Free radicals cause damage to everything from cell walls to DNA and can result in visible signs of ageing, dementia and even potentially cancer.
Fortunately, there is a way to combat the action of free radicals which can thus help us to extend our lifespans and even reduce the likelihood of developing cancer and other conditions.
As mentioned, oxidative stress really occurs only when you have too many free radicals in relation to antioxidants.
Antioxidants are molecules that contain spare electrons, meaning that they’re able to donate spares to the free radicals thereby neutralizing them and preventing further reactions.
There are any number of foods that can provide us with antioxidants: tomatoes, red grapes, berries, fish and fruits all being high on the list. Vitamin C is a particularly effective antioxidant and this is one of the reasons that it’s so important for maintaining a healthy immune system. Red wine is also one of the most potent natural antioxidants thanks to a substance called ‘resveratrol’.
There are other methods as well though which can help to reduce free radicals and oxidative stress. One thing you can do to reduce oxidative stress for instance is to exercise regularly. When you exercise, your body consumes more oxygen and counters this by ‘upping the defenses’. Exercising is thus able to increase antioxidant action in your body. Meanwhile, exercise also combats oxidative stress by making the body more energy efficient and more efficient in its use of oxygen. It does this by increasing the number and function of mitochondria in the cells which act as small ‘power plants’.
Avoiding pollutants can also help to reduce the number of free radicals in your system. In particular it’s important to stop smoking, while avoiding heavily polluted city centers can also help.
Interestingly, it also appears that extreme low calorie diets can further help to reduce oxidative stress and in animals studies have been shown to significantly extend lifespan (1). This has led to some groups of people interested in ‘life extension’ going as far as to change their diet accordingly. Unfortunately though, this often leads to a number of other unwanted effects associated with malnutrition.
For most people then, calorie restriction might be a step too far. But for a safer way to reduce oxidative stress it should be sufficient to avoid smoking, to get more exercise and to add more vitamins and minerals to your diet.