Oxidative Stress: Understanding the most lethal phenomenon happening in your body right now

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

What is oxidative stress?

It is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants that are present in our body.  Let us first understand what are free radicals and antioxidants.

Oxygen-containing molecules with the presence of an uneven number of electrons are called free radicals.  This structure allows them to easily react with other molecules.  Due to this reaction with other molecules, they tend to cause large chain chemical reactions.  This reaction process is called oxidation.  This process of oxidation can be both beneficial as well as harmful.  However, when these free radicals chemically interact with these cell components, they steal electrons in order to become stabilized.  This causes the DNA, protein, and lipid to become destabilized.  This process continues and becomes a chain reaction causing damage to these DNA, protein, or lipid.

Molecules that can donate an electron to a free radical without becoming unstable are called antioxidants.  Due to this ability of antioxidants, they reduce the reaction caused by free radicals.  When there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants, oxidative stress is caused.

Why is oxidation bad for you?

It is a process where a substance loses one or more electrons and becomes oxidized.  This process is helpful in various biological processes and on the other hand, can also cause severe cells damage if it is not under control.  When one or more electron is lost, that substance becomes a free radical.  The problem starts when these free radicals interact with DNA, lipids, and proteins.  These free radicals tend to remove the electrons present in DNA, protein, or lipids and make them unstable causing oxidative stress.  It is important to note that certain free radicals are good for the body.

Roles played by free radicals

  • Free radicals cause damage to the body, which is known as oxidation.  The amount of oxidation caused by these free radicals can determine the extent of oxidative stress.
  • Oxidative stress can affect several organ systems in our body.  They are linked to several health conditions namely cancer, heart disease, asthma, diabetes, arteriosclerosis, leaky gut syndrome, etc.  Overall oxidative stress is considered to be the biggest cause of death due to several chronic diseases.
  • The process of oxidation not only affects the organ systems, but also causes damage to the cells, tissues, and muscles.

Few antioxidants you might be aware of

  • Glutathione is a very powerful antioxidant that protects the liver.
  • Vitamin A, C, and E are again very powerful antioxidants.
  • Lipoic acid is an antioxidant that has the ability to repair essential enzymes in the body.
  • Regulation of circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycle) is managed by melatonin.
  • HDL cholesterol acts as an antioxidant by repairing damaged blood vessels and reducing oxidation.

The major sources of free radicals are

  • Basic body functions such as breathing and digestion.
  • Radiation exposure.
  • Environmental pollutants
  • Social habits such as the use of tobacco, drugs, and alcohol
  • Regular use of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance and lead to the development of free radicals.
  • Unhealthy foods such as fats, sugar, as well as synthetic additives
  • Foods containing oxidized fats such as processed foods
  • High levels of physical and mental stress

Ways to fight free radicals

Dietary improvements

  • It is advised to consume brightly colored fruits such as carrots, pumpkin, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, etc that are helpful to your skin and eyes.  The antioxidants present in these foods protect your vision as well as reduce sunburn and wrinkles.
  • Quercetin present in citrus fruits, as well as lycopene, is present in leafy greens such as spinach.  These antioxidants provide anti-aging effects.  Berries too contain powerful antioxidants such as resveratrol.  These berries are low on sugar and high on fiber, which is an added advantage.
  • Green and white tea contain polyphenols that are effective in fighting cancer.  Cocoa has high concentrations of antioxidants.  It should be noted that only organic and minimally processed cocoa should be consumed.
  • Numerous herbs and spices too contain antioxidants and include oregano, cinnamon, rosemary, ginger, turmeric, etc.
  • Essential oils are also a great source of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.  Eating the food containing rich antioxidants seems to be the best choice we can make, but it is important to consume organic foods in order to prevent the consumption of pesticide-laden foods.
  • It is important to limit the use of antibiotics and hormones to prevent the damage caused by them.

Avoid toxins & exposure to pollutants

In addition to consuming foods rich in antioxidants, there are other ways to start reducing free radical damage:

  • Limiting environmental pollutants, particularly water.
  • Avoiding chemical exposure from cosmetic products.  Cosmetics made from essential oils are advised as an alternative.
  • Avoid stress in your life
  • Exercise regularly and get at least a moderate amount of exercise.  It is not advised to stay sedentary, which will not limit the aging process.  On the other hand, you need not exercise rigorously as it may cause mental fatigue and burnout.  This may cause your body more damage.
  • Aim for weight goal and work towards achieving it.
  • Regulate your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels to prevent more serious medical illness such as heart problems, diabetes, etc.

High oxidative stress can lead to…


The onset of cancer is considered to be a complex process, which requires both cellular and molecular alterations.  It is mediated by endogenous and/or exogenous triggers as well.  As discussed earlier oxidative DNA damage is one of the main causes of cancer development.  Lifestyle changes such as smoking, alcohol consumption, chronic inflammation, as well as environmental pollutants cause oxidative stress by promoting free radicals.

Cardiovascular diseases

These are medical conditions with multifactorial etiology.  It is also associated with a very large amount of risk factors.  Some of the broadly recognized risk factors include hypercholesterolemia, diabetes, hypertension, unbalanced diet, stress, etc.

Studies have indicated that oxidative stress is considered to be either a primary or a secondary cause for many cardiovascular diseases.  Studies have indicated that plaque formation is a result of early endothelial inflammation.  The circulating LDL in the bloodstream is then oxidized thus leading to lipid accumulation.  Due to this lipid accumulation, it leads to atherosclerotic plaque.  Studies have indicated that the above-mentioned phenomenon plays an important role in causing atherosclerosis, hypertension, ischemia, cardiomyopathy, and congestive heart failure.

Neurological diseases

This can be classified into many types namely Parkinson disease, Alzheimer disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, depression, as well as memory loss.  Studies have indicated that oxidative damage plays an important role in neuron loss and development of dementia in the case of Alzheimer disease.  The action of free radicals leads to the production of beta-amyloid, which is a toxic peptide.  This toxic peptide is generally found in Alzheimer’s disease patients’ brain and is considered to be responsible for neurodegeneration, which leads to the onset and progression of the disease.

Respiratory diseases

Oxidative stress is again responsible for several lung diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  The main cause of these lung diseases is due to chronic inflammation.  As discussed earlier, inflammation is caused due to oxidative stress.  This is accomplished with the activation of NF-kappa B and AP-1 that are called as pathways and transcription factors.

Kidney disease

Oxidative stress is involved in causing numerous kidney related issues such as renal failure, proteinuria, and uremia. The kidneys are highly affected due to the effect of oxidative stress.  This is caused due to the production of ROS, which induces inflammatory cells.   Oxidative stress acts chronically on kidney tissues, which results in inflammation and later the formation of fibrotic tissue.  This causes problems with the functioning of the organ and leading to renal failure.

Caution with regards to supplements

There are several anti-aging supplements that are available in the market these days, it is becoming a concern that people are relying more on these supplements to counteract unhealthy lifestyle choices and poor nutrition.

There is also a concern that consuming high doses of concentrated antioxidants from supplements may cause other problematic effects like interfering with proper exercise recovery.  It should be understood that isolating specific antioxidants and consuming them in the form of supplements to reduce free radicals may not be a good choice as compared to eating whole foods.  It should be noted that the interaction of numerous antioxidants as they are present in food seems to be most beneficial.

Antioxidants have gained enormous attention from the biomedical research.  These compounds have shown a high degree of effectiveness in terms of disease prevention.  They are also free from important side effects.  It should be noted that the best way to reduce free radical damage can be achieved through a healthy diet and lifestyle.  Choosing supplements to fulfill this requirement may sometimes cause unwanted side effects and are generally not as beneficial as eating whole plant foods.



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