Oxidative Stress and Antioxidants: what they are and why you should care



If you work with me or follow my social media you will hear me yammering on about stress and the effects it has on the body.  Stress comes in many forms – work/life stress, long term illness, internal stress at the cellular level…the list goes on. This post is about oxidative stress, stress at a cellular level.  Oxidative stress is a major factor in most degenerative and chronic diseases we see today.  It plays a role in and may even be the cause of cardiovascular disease, cancer, neurological diseases, autoimmune diseases, intrauterine growth restriction, kidney diseases, early aging, and more.  Oxidative stress happens when we have too many damaging molecules called free radicals in the system for the internally made clean up molecules called antioxidants to prevent damage to the cell.  With me?

The body creates free radicals in normal cell functioning such as when the cell uses oxygen to make cellular energy called ATP.  This is a good thing and why we love oxygen.  What is left over after the oxygen is used for energy is a free floating and destructive MOFO coming in just to mess everything up.  But, like all stressors on the system it’s not all bad.  Free radicals are used by some immune cells to fight illness and they are used for cell maturation during new cell generation.  But, we only need a teensy bit of them to do the good things.  The body likes a perfect balance of allthethings (in science we call it homeostasis).  If there is an overload of free radicals they cause more harm then good and we call it Oxidative Stress. Substances like tobacco smoke (likely all types of smoking); air pollutants, pesticides, alcohol, and poor dietary choices all create oxidative stress. But you can’t live in an air-purified bubble to prevent contact with the world.  After all, you have to get outside, play, work, drive your car, garden, and enjoy your life.  Enter, antioxidants.

Antioxidants are the body’s answer to excess free radicals.  Antioxidants are like your wicked nice friend who is super generous and never burns out.  She comes in and gives  everything she has to (an electron) to the very unstable friend who is about to wreck everything.  Your wicked nice friend never comes unhinged herself.  And voila, your emotionally falling apart friend is stabilized, showered and put back together.  The stabilization of the free radical stops the chain reaction of cellular damage. 

Antioxidants are made naturally by the body in response to the internal cellular production of free radicals.  But because we live in the world and not a bubble, the body is overwhelmed by free radicals (from environment).  So, to have enough age/cancer/chronic disease fighting power we can add antioxidants to the diet or up regulate the processes that make internal antioxidants.  Ideally both.  

Where do you find antioxidants?

So glad you asked. Here’s some common and less common food sources:

Berries (all the berries, preferably organic), grapes, Nuts and seeds, whole grains (the actual whole grain not a “whole grain” bread/pasta/etc), broccoli, artichoke, okra, moringa, dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes/yams, carrots, beans, fish, cinnamon, mint, nutmeg, saffron, ginger, basil, bay leaf, thyme, green tea, coffee (yay!).

Bottom line: eating a widely varied diet that is very high in vegetables and fruits will benefit you in all-the-ways.

Other ways to improve your ability to reduce oxidative stress:

Good quality sleep

Exercise daily

Use non-toxic skin care, detergents and cleaning products

Supplements to help you produce more antioxidants (check in with your favorite Naturopathic Doctor or Functional Medicine doctor for the options best for you)

Got questions? I love questions, drop me a message!


Here’s some sciencey resources: