It’s said that gray hair is a crown of glory, and wrinkles, a medal of the passage of life. Gray hair and wrinkles, tell a story of life well lived; creaking bones, painful joints, blurry vision, and fatigue tell of another. It’s the story of oxidative stress, an invisible cellular damage, that leads to inflammation, degenerative disease, cancer, and body-wide aging. The magnitude of oxidative stress depends on internal and external factors, many of which are modifiable.
Oxidative stress represents the imbalance of cellular injury and repair, of pro-oxidants and antioxidant. The culprit behind it is an accumulation of free radicals and the resulting products, reactive oxygen species. These molecules have one or more unpaired electrons. An imbalance of electrons makes molecules highly reactive with lipids (fats), DNA, protein, and carbohydrates. In effect, free radicals donate or rob electrons from these stable molecules, damaging core cellular structures and altering cellular function. In the process, free radicals initiate chain reactions, which create more free radicals, thus increase cellular injury.
Antioxidants to the rescue
Antioxidants, however, inhibit chain initiation or propagation of free radicals by donating electrons without becoming unstable free radicals in return. People are most familiar with antioxidants sourced through diet. These take the form of nutrients and non-nutrients. Nutrients involved in antioxidant mechanisms include vitamins A, C, E, B2 (riboflavin), and B3 (niacin); and minerals – copper, zinc, selenium, manganese. Non-nutrients that also have an antioxidant role are glutathione (key detoxification compound) and a host of phytochemicals (non-essential food compounds that are known to bolster health). Green tea, coffee, colourful fruits vegetables and fruits, garlic and onion, red wine, turmeric and ginger are examples of various classes of phytochemicals.
In addition to diet-derived antioxidants, enzymes contribute to antioxidant defence. Detoxification enzymes, in particular, contribute by accelerating toxins (reactive intermediate detoxifying products) through detoxification pathways, quickly. Reactive intermediates, which form from toxins as a result of phase I (activation), are free radicals and cause cellular damage if not shuttled quickly to phase II (detoxification). Detoxification enzymes also regenerate antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamin C, which in turn regenerates vitamin E, an antioxidant nutrient in frontline defense protecting cell membranes from intruding free radicals. Other non-detoxification enzymes serve by repairing and replacing damaged cellular components. These include lipases, enzymes that repair cell membranes; proteases, enzymes that repair proteins; and ligases, enzymes that repair broken DNA strands. Together, antioxidants, antioxidant enzymes, and repair mechanisms comprise the antioxidant defense system. When antioxidants defense exceeds free radicals, homeostasis advances cellular health.
What are sources of free radicals?
As long as you’re living and breathing, free radicals are unavoidable; free radicals are natural by-products being Physiological levels of free radicals are necessary for cell regeneration, signalling, and production of essential compounds. At the same time, free radicals cause cell injury. Awareness of internal and external sources of free radicals is helpful in mitigating accumulation of free radicals, first and foremost. Overstimulated immune cells, bacterial infection, acute and chronic psychological stress, and intensive exercise elevate internal production of free radical production. Chemical and biological toxins, radiation, alcohol, and drugs (prescription, recreational, and over-the-counter) also generate free radicals in the body. Preformed free radicals are found in oils, seeds, and grains subject to high heat or prolonged exposure to air and light during storage. Meat and grains cooked at high temperatures in dry heat (i.e. roasting, grilling, baking, searing, sautéing, and frying) also generate free radicals.
This does not mean that competitive runners should abandon running to reduce oxidative stress. It doesn’t mean that die-hard grillers should sell their grills and steam all their meat and vegetables from now on (who does that – really?). It doesn’t demand that we become fearful of exposures to chemicals. No! There is too much life to live. Awareness of free radical sources should, on the other hand, prompt attention to prioritizing modifiable changes that reduce oxidative stress as much as possible, while holding much enjoyment in life.
Tips for reducing accumulation of free radicals
For people trying to overcome illness, a more rigorous approach may be necessary; whereas people interested in prevention of disease and maximizing current health may benefit from less stringent measures. Regardless, everyone will benefit from tipping the balance in favour of cellular health. Consider the following recommendations that align with that end:
• Become a curious observer of your thoughts. Are they towards negative self dialogue or negative thinking patterns – judgement, complaining, comparing, blaming? Do you over analyze the past or have addictive behaviours? Do you need to be in control all the time? Consider what letting go and reframing situations can do for your internal state. Becoming calm and relaxed, at ease in every situation (yes, even at work) requires thinking the best of situations, not the worst; the beautiful of others, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. The only way to change is by curiously observing your thought and being focused on making changes. This is not easy. Repetition allow this to become who you are.
• Eat until you’re 80% full; avoid overeating at all costs. Converting nutrients from food into usable energy generates free radicals. One of the best to promote longevity is by eating slightly less than what your body requires.
• Reduce toxin exposures. Begin by increasing your awareness of toxic chemicals used in personal care products, household cleaners, furniture, food, and water. This can be overwhelming and even daunting at first as you grow awareness of the plethora of harmful chemicals that exist. Make change manageable by selecting one or two items to change per week. A gradual switch to natural cleaning products (baking soda, vinegar, and lemon juice) is a great start. Refer to Skin Deep Cosmetic Database for options on safer personal care products. Better yet, reduce the number of products you use in your daily regimen even if they are safer. Instead of mascara, an eyelash curler may do for your daily look. Embrace your natural beauty without make-up. Lower oxidative stress in your body will do wonders for drawing out your natural beauty.
• Reduce sources of radiation. Upon reading “radiation” most people’s thoughts turn to Chernobyl, a catastrophic nuclear disaster that dispelled lethal doses of radiation. Most people don’t realize that frequent exposure to radiation from cell phones, cordless phones, Bluetooth, and wireless devices is also impacting. Effects from these sources are not on the same magnitude as from Chernobyl but add up over time. Consider unplugging or using wired alternative to wireless technology when available. Spend less time on your phone and more time with people face to face. Entertain yourself outdoors instead of with devices.
• Use cooking methods that do no generate free radicals. For example, use heat stable coconut oil, avocado oil, or tallow for high-temperature cooking (>375º F). Better yet, opt for cooking methods that use low temperatures in moist heat over longer cooking times. Use a pressure cooker or slow cooker; cook roasts, stews, or whole chickens in a Dutch oven with broth on the bottom; steam, simmer, and poach your food, especially meat and grains. For die-hard grillers, marinate meat before cooking. It’s BBQ season after all!
Increasing antioxidant defense
Even when modifiable sources of free radicals are minimized, antioxidants continue to protect cells and support cellular repair from normal wear and tear. The following recommendation will increase your antioxidant defence:
• Eat the rainbow of fruits and vegetables. In addition to antioxidant nutrients – vitamin E, vitamin C, and selenium – colourful fruits and vegetables contain a vast array of phytochemicals, non-essential compounds in plant-based foods that benefit health. Red, blue, purple, green, orange, yellow, brown, and white colours represent different phytochemicals, many of which have antioxidant properties. Aim to eat at least one fruit or vegetable from each color of the rainbow, including white! Cauliflower and mushrooms have antioxidants too.
• Avoid taking single-antioxidant supplements. Instead, eat whole foods for a variety of antioxidants. Some antioxidants from supplements are poorly absorbed compared to those derived from food. Also, antioxidants work in concert with other antioxidants. While one antioxidant may counteract a free radical, another antioxidant is needed to regenerate the first. Taking vitamin C, for example, when vitamin E stores are low will cause vitamin C to act like a pro-oxidant (similar to a free radical). Food sources high in vitamin E include raw almonds, sunflower seeds, and hazelnuts; turnip greens, tomato paste, spinach, and dandelion greens; avocado and olive oil. Besides citrus fruit, food sources high in vitamin C are broccoli, guava, strawberries, green and red bell peppers, Brussel sprouts, and kohlrabi. Selenium is high in raw Brazil nuts and sunflower seeds; fish, beef, lean turkey and chicken; ricotta cheese; pasta, oatmeal, and bread. For those with a sweet tooth, feel good about having blackstrap molasses because it too is a high source of selenium.
Wishing you improved cellular health for fullness of life and vitality!