Oxygen is the most abundant chemical element on Earth. It’s one of life’s necessities, but in high concentrations, oxygen is actually toxic and corrosive. In fact, oxygen derives its roots from Greek: “oxys-” meaning acid and “–gonos” meaning producer.
Oxygen is responsible for oxidative stress in the body, but before you start holding your breath or taking shallower breaths, let’s take a closer look at oxidative stress.
Oxidation is a natural process that describes the process of removing electrons from an atom or molecule. It’s what explains rust on iron, patina on copper, and brown apple slices. Oxygen is the oxidizing agent in these instances, but other chemicals, like chlorine, can also cause oxidation.
Because oxidation is a natural process that happens as a result of contact with oxygen, it makes sense that it would occur in the human body, the majority of which is composed of oxygen (water contains oxygen). In the human body, oxidation is responsible for killing old cells and creating new cells. When you cut your hand, oxidation heals the cut, replacing the old, dead skin cells with fresh, new skin cells.
Metabolizing oxygen is a good thing, right? It heals your wounds and puts those tired, old cells out to pasture. However, in the process, your body turns about two percent of the resulting cells into free radicals. These cells lack an essential molecule, making them damaged and unstable. Through cell migration, the free radicals attach to your DNA and are capable of causing direct harm.
For the most part, free radicals aren’t an issue thanks to antioxidants, which work through various means to neutralize free radicals and prevent them from causing your body damage, though free radicals aren’t all bad. In fact, your body will, at times, create and release free radicals to battle bacteria and viral infections.
Oxidative stress is what happens when there aren’t enough antioxidants to handle the free radicals along with the numerous other environmental pressures your body bears (radiation, toxins, cigarettes, expired pizzas).
Your body’s ability to cope with oxidative stress over time is often reflected in how you age and certain age-related diseases. Life science research shows that oxidative stress is implicated in several diseases, including:
- Sickle cell
- Heart failure
Reducing Oxidative Stress
One way to reduce oxidative stress is to cut down on your exposure to free radicals in your environment. Free radicals outside of your body can come from air pollution, cigarette smoke, and bright sunlight.
Antioxidants are the best defense against free radicals, and there are a ton of foods that are rich in antioxidants. Focus on foods containing vitamins A, C, and E and beta-carotene to build up your body’s antioxidant defenses.
The fact is, your body is constantly producing free radicals. Eat healthy, exercise, and lead a healthy life and your body should easily balance out the production of free radicals. Breathe easy.