My personal educated guess is that around 90% of the population in the United States and rising numbers in other countries is in a state of oxidative stress. Chances are, if you feel unwell, run down, achy, and downright sick, the most common cause is the excess of oxidation processes in your body. It is not the same as psychological stress, although the two go hand in hand, but it’s rather a chemical imbalance in the body, where free radicals outnumber antioxidants in a ratio of 10:1. Oxidative stress leads to worsening of diseases over time and an early and painful death. Your body cannot fix it by itself but persists in a vicious loop, and it desperately needs your help! Let’s see what this beast is and how we can beat it.
Not many are aware of the term oxidative stress, and yet it is the underlying mechanism of the vast majority of diseases. In fact, I am yet to come upon a disease, disorder, condition, or even a minor ache where this condition is not involved in a major, substantial way. So, at least theoretically, reducing or eliminating oxidative stress should reverse disease and even prolong life itself!
You may have heard of free radicals in the media before, they are the nasty molecules that go and destroy everything in their path. You can imagine them as little pac-man with flamethrowers going around your tissues and basically burning everything to a crisp. Now, why would we want something like that in our bodies?
Free radicals are just as bad as they sound. They deform and damage proteins in our bodies, making them lose function and even become clutter and crowd our sells, getting in the way of normal function. For example, the irregular proteins in cognitive degenerative disorders are believed to be produced by free radicals in brain tissue. They damage DNA, causing cancer and a host of other issues. They also hurt our cellular membranes, those thin lipid sacks that surround every cell to hold it together, making them stiff, sticky, and less responsive to signals from other cells. Free radicals oxidize your LDL cholesterol and cause atherosclerosis, the condition underlying heart disease and hypertension. They also damage nerve cells in both central nervous system and in the periphery, causing mood and mental disorders, motor difficulties, neuropathies, etc. Free radicals also cause or exacerbate all autoimmune conditions, and are the primary vehicle of lime disease dysfunctions.
What are free radicals and where they come from? Free radicals are molecules that are very hungry for electrons, and they go around and steal electrons from anything they encounter: fats, lipids, proteins, thereby damaging their structure and function. They come from poor diet, pollution, heavy metals, X-ray and UV radiation, smoking, heat and psychological stress. All of these are equally bad and potent contributors to oxidative stress.
Dietary sources of free radicals are: processed foods, foods that have been fried in oil (deep fried chicken, potato and veggie chips, etc.), chemical additives, sugar. Sugar is the number one source of free radicals in the Western diet. It’s not a free radical itself, but any amount of added sugar in your food spikes your blood glucose, which produces myriads of free radicals in your body. In fact, diabetes is a very good example of how hyperglycemia exacerbates the disease itself and causes all of its complications such as eye problems, neuropathies, kidney disease, heart disease, etc. Free radicals caused by high blood sugar are behind all of that damage.
Heated and stale vegetable oils are another source of free radicals, and those are the worst most vicious free radicals in nature. Lipid-derived free radicals are bad because they turn good lipids into free radicals in a chain reaction. You may be familiar with rancid oils that become sticky and smell bad, that is actually the last stage in an oxidative process called lipid peroxidation. This is the reason potato chips are extremely bad for you, as well as potato fries, and any piece of food that’s been coated in oil and cooked, including supposedly healthy vegetables like green beans and beats! Heat, air and sunlight oxidize liquid vegetable oils, which in turn oxidize normal fats as well, be that in the bottle, on the potato fry, or inside your body. The longer the oil has been heated for, and the longer it’s been exposed to room temperature air after being heated, the more and more of that oil turns oxidized and rancid. This happens to every kind of “vegetable” oil that’s liquid at room temperature. Therefore, it is best to cook with saturated fats and oils like coconut oil or butter, because they are resistant to oxidation and rancidity, and therefore heat. However, unheated and fresh vegetable oils are an essential part of a healthy diet and can be eaten in liberal amounts, sprinkled on salads or food that has been already cooked.
So, in order to avoid free radicals that come from foods, it’s best to get on a whole, real foods diet. The basic premise of the diet is to eat only the food you cooked yourself from scratch at home. This ensures that you are eating the freshest food imaginable that is closest to its natural form, where most of its nutrition is still there on your plate, and it also lacks all the chemicals and additives processed foods are full of. It’s okay to eat at restaurants that also prepare their food in house, but not all restaurants do that. Most chain restaurants only heat up foods that have been highly processed and cooked in factories hundreds of miles away. Small mom-and-pop restaurants typically prepare their foods from raw ingredients right before they serve you.
Other sources of free radicals are pollution, especially heavy metals. Metal teeth fillings are the number one culprit here in the general population. Some predatory fish such as bass, shark and swordfish are also very high in mercury, and a steady diet of those can land you in the hospital. Living near manufacturing plants and factories, or places that deal with chemicals, coal, minerals, metals, petroleum, etc., is also a bad idea. Especially kids are sensitive to heavy metal damage, and it would be wise to move away from heavily polluted areas to ensure a long and healthy life for you and your family. Adults can handle a bit of pollution, however, especially if we eat healthy.
Radiation such as X-ray, UV, and gamma rays causes the formation of free radicals. This is how radiation therapy kills cancer cells. However, free radicals from radiation also damage healthy tissues, including DNA, which can potentially create new cancers. X-ray imaging is also a form of radiation, and it is best to limit x-ray testing as much as possible. Doing it several times a year rises chances of cancer and other diseases due to free radicals that are formed. Sun’s radiation also creates free radicals, but only when it creates a sunburn. Normal sun tan is healthy and should be encouraged. It is only when we tan so much that it hurts that sun’s rays turn against us.
Cigarette smoking and even regular wood smoke also introduce a lot of free radicals into our lungs. Makes you question the wisdom of ancient people who spend most of their days around fire, especially in enclosed huts where smoke had little means of getting out! Lung cancer is associated with smoking via free radicals that flood your lungs and blood stream from tar and a multitude of chemicals added to cigarettes. Paradoxically, food prepared on burning wood (chemical-free, of course) reduces free radicals in your body.
Regular heat applied to skin also causes free radicals, but specifically high heat that burns. When tissues are burned, they create free radicals.
Last, but not least, psychological stress is another potent source of free radicals. This is why chronic stress causes disease. It is crucial to eliminate as many sources of stress in our lives as possible, and never take stress for granted or dismiss it as a normal part of modern life. Humans are not made to handle every day stressors that we face today. It saddens me that even though we often work very hard to change our diets and exercise, we neglect this important part of our lifestyles. Merely managing stress may not be enough, we must work as hard as we can to eliminate stressors altogether. This may require major changes in our lives. We are often stuck in our ways and we hold on to the status quo fearing change, but often change is what will save us.
Now that we’ve identified sources of free radicals and made a plan to eliminate them, it’s time to turn to what mother nature prepared for our defense against free radicals and oxidative stress. In fact, the solution is often right under our feet or on the shelf of a produce isle. Antioxidants is a wide class of phytochemicals (that is, substances produced by plants) that neutralize free radicals. Therefore, antioxidants reduce oxidative stress. However, it is important to remember a few things when using antioxidants as a therapeutic means.
First, humans need combinations of antioxidants for them to work. Antioxidants never work alone, they are team players. Among the known antioxidants are vitamins A, D, D, and E, also polyphenols from berries and other foods, and minerals such as elemental iodine (I2) and selenium (as selenomethionine). Antioxidants are present in popular botanical extracts such as ginkgo biloba, ginseng, garlic, turmeric, ginger, cayenne, nettle, cat’s claw, bilberry, olive leaf, milk thistle, chamomile, rooibos, green tea, dandelion, etc. etc. Nature abounds with antioxidants. Making a smoothie every day from fresh or frozen raw berries will give you a big boost of antioxidants for the day. There are also berry concentrates available on the market.
Here’s a list of well-known antioxidants extracted from foods that you can get your hands on:
Quercetin (from onions)
Pycnogenol (from pine bark)
Curcumin (from turmeric)
Resveratrol (from grapes)
Sulforaphane (from broccoli sprouts, activated by myrosinase)
Grape Seed extract
Green Tea extract
Concentrated Berry powders
Antioxidants are also present in abundance in raw ingredients such as vegetables, various greens, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, sea food, spices, herbs, and grass fed meats and dairy and pastured poultry and eggs. The key here is variety. Don’t assume that greens are limited to lettuce and spinach, there are dozens of kinds of greens! Eat as many different varieties of everything as you can get your hands on, because they all have their unique antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, all of which work together to create a healthier, happier you!
They say that it’s best to eat 400-800 different kinds of foods per year. That translates to 30-60 kinds of foods per month, and each month you eat a different set of foods! That’s quite a lot considering that modern standard American diet only includes about 40 foods total. Unless you have your own garden of a good size, it’s quite difficult to attain the number 400, but we can at least try 120! That translates to 10 foods per month with different foods every month. It will be much easier to accomplish if you eat foods that are in season locally, or, in other words, shop at farmers markets or maybe even sign up for a CSA (community-supported agriculture). It is easy to find everything online nowadays, and most farmer’s markets list their locations and times on farmer’s associations websites.
Time and again you realize that the answer to most health problem lies in a real, whole foods diet! You can get down to the molecular level of why that is, describe all the reductionist mechanisms that play a role in this or that dysfunction, and that may be good or simply curious to know. But thee answer has been all along, eat healthy!