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What is oxidative stress?

transparent blue abstract molecules
This article looks into oxidative stress, including what it is, causes, side effects, tests and how to combat it. Do we all suffer with it?
In the context of our bodies, oxidative stress can cause cell damage.1 Oxidative stress is thought to be one of the causes of a number of physical conditions, including heart disease.2 We will all suffer some degree of oxidative stress in the course of our lives – it is a normal part of cell degeneration and regeneration. And whilst completely eliminating oxidative stress is impossible – there are risk factors are in the environment all around us – there are ways to minimise it and even reduce the damage caused by this phenomenon. Let’s take a closer look.

What is the meaning of oxidative?

First, it is good to understand the process of oxidation. In the simplest terms, oxidation is a chemical process that occurs when a substance loses electrons or gains oxygen.3 It is essentially the same process that causes fruit to rot or iron to rust.4 If a molecule loses an electron, it becomes unstable. These unstable molecules are often referred to as free radicals. It is important to point out that the process of oxidation is not all bad: it can be harnessed for good.5

Oxidative stress meaning

The main problem with free radicals is that they try to steal electrons back from other, more stable cells in order to stabilise themselves. This causes a cascade of increasing free radical molecules, which in turn causes oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress effects

Oxidative stress manifests itself in cell and DNA strand damage, which is why it is thought to be behind many health conditions, tissue injury and inflammation.6

What are the causes of oxidative stress?

It can be helpful to understand what actually causes oxidative stress. It is caused by an imbalance between oxidants (sometimes known as pro-oxidants) and antioxidants. Oxidants are environmental factors that increase the likelihood of damaging molecules and creating free radicals.

The most common causes of oxidant stress are:

  • Pollution
  • UV radiation
  • Smoking
  • Diet - especially one low in natural antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, and beta carotene.7

Oxidative damage

One of the strongest pieces of evidence for oxidative stress and damage is male infertility. In fact, oxidative stress can cause of sperm damage, according to scientific studies.8 In combination with lifestyle factors, it is thought to contribute to things like cardiovascular disease.9

The best way to combat oxidative stress

On the flip side, the simplest way to combat an excess of free radicals is to provide your body with more cells that have extra electrons – ones that will not become unstable if they are ‘robbed’ by a free radical. These are known as antioxidants. Increasing your intake of antioxidants helps stabilise the free radicals, reducing the likelihood of cell damage.

How to get more antioxidants

The main source of antioxidants is in our diet. Good sources of antioxidants include10:
  • Carotenoids, found in spinach, sweet potatoes and other richly coloured fruit and vegetables
  • Flavenoids, found in onions, broccoli, berries and some herbs
  • Vitamin C, commonly associated with citrus fruit, but also found in kale, strawberries and mangoes
  • Vitamin E, found in almonds and avocados, among other fruit and veg
  • Selenium, a mineral found in mushrooms and some nuts and seeds
For more ideas of how to pack antioxidants into your diet naturally, check out our article on the benefits of an antioxidant-rich diet on the Health Hub.

Supplements

Of course, if you find it tricky to add antioxidants into your diet due to taste preferences, budget, or availability, you can supplement all the common antioxidants with tablets or capsules. Check out all of our vitamins and supplements or search for each antioxidant individually.

Oxidative stress test

There are tests to look at oxidative stress in semen11, which are usually performed by medical professionals. There are also diagnostic kits that can look into your DNA, lifestyle factors, and levels of vitamins and minerals in your body.12 Shop Vitamins & Supplements Last updated: 8 February 2021 Sources https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxidative_stress 2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2990475/ 3 https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxidationhttps://ec.europa.eu/health/scientific_committees/opinions_layman/glossary/mno/oxidative-stress.htmhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5551541/https://oem.bmj.com/content/60/8/612https://www.rbmojournal.com/article/S1472-6483(14)00118-7/fulltexthttps://www.rbmojournal.com/article/S1472-6483(14)00118-7/fulltexthttps://oem.bmj.com/content/60/8/612 10 https://www.hollandandbarrett.com/the-health-hub/food-drink/diets/superfoods/benefits-antioxidant-rich-diet/ 11 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5508430/ 12 https://smartnutrition.co.uk/health-tests/oxidative-stress/
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