Focus on Health: Oxidative Stress, and What You Can Do to Prevent It
We're too blessed to be Oxidative Stressed, thanks to the help of educator and nutrition expert Jeanne Rosner, MD.
Welcome to WEEK 2 of our food education series with nutrition educator and creator of SOUL food salon, Jeanne Rosner, MD, featuring 4 weekly installments, exploring topics from fiber and its role in a balanced diet, inflammation, and the taxing impact of stress on our health.
Have you ever wondered why apples or avocados turn brown a few minutes after you cut into them? Why do old cars start to rust? It’s thanks to a process called oxidation. When this same activity occurs in our bodies, it is referred to as oxidative stress. Over time, oxidative stress can be extremely harmful to the human body, leading to degenerative changes that accelerate aging and cause chronic disease. For true health to prevail, our goal should be to provide an environment where oxidative stress is minimized. Oxidation is the process of removing electrons from an atom or molecule. Electrons normally exist in pairs. When they fly solo, they are highly unstable or reactive; in this state, they are also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS) or free radicals. Damage occurs when the free radical encounters another molecule and seeks to find another electron to pair with to become more stable. The unpaired electron pulls an electron off a neighboring molecule (often the donor is DNA, important structural or functional proteins, LDL cholesterol particles, or even cell membranes) causing the affected molecule to behave like a free radical itself—and a chain reaction occurs. In their wake, the free radicals create even more unstable molecules that then attack their neighbors in a domino-like chain reaction. Not surprisingly, the end result of this process can be highly destructive.
The production of free radicals can occur as a normal byproduct of metabolism. It also results from exposure to things like certain chemicals, cigarette smoke, pollution, radiation, increased sunlight exposure and tanning beds. The simple loss of electrons can subtly alter the function of, or even damage, DNA, proteins and cell membranes. Cumulative damage of this sort probably accounts for premature aging, many of the degenerative changes of aging and age-related diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Antioxidants help stave off oxidative stress. They can donate electrons and stop the spiraling domino effect. Interestingly, antioxidants are able to give up electrons to free radicals without turning into electron-scavenging substances themselves.
In addition to the presence of antioxidants in our diet, we are fortunate that our body can defend against oxidative stress in many other ways. Within cells, there are physical barriers that can help contain free radicals at their site of production. Enzymes in the body can help neutralize the dangerously reactive forms of oxygen. Programmed cell death (apoptosis) can occur when damage becomes excessive. In general, however, when there are too many free radicals in the body and too few antioxidants and/or mechanisms to defend against oxidative stress, more damage occurs. As an example, free radicals can oxidize LDL cholesterol. When this happens, atherosclerotic plaques can form in blood vessel walls. Ultimately, this has the potential to lead to blood clots resulting in blood flow blockage in the heart and brain, causing a heart attack or stroke, respectively.
To help prevent an environment of oxidative stress, we should try to reduce free radical formation and help ensure an abundance of antioxidant support. The following are some tips to create this supportive environment.
1. Modify diet: Reduce consumption of trans fats, alcohol, high glucose-containing foods and fructose (not from fruit). These food items can overwhelm the metabolic capacity of the liver, resulting in free radical production. In addition, avoid deep-fried foods because they are notorious sources of free radicals, caused by the oil being continuously oxidized when it is heated at high temperatures.
2. Increase fiber intake: This helps reduce the rate at which the liver metabolizes energy; therefore it reduces the production of free radicals.
3. Increase antioxidant ingestion: Eat a diet full of fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. The richer the color and more variety in these foods, the more nutrients and antioxidants they will provide. Each different color in fruits and vegetables represents a different nutrient and antioxidant. Research shows individual antioxidants in supplement form provide minimal benefit.
4. Increase mitochondrial formation and number through exercise. This allows better processing and metabolism of food items, thereby preventing the production of free radicals.
Trying to keep the “rust” out of our bodies is an important step in preventing the degenerative changes of aging as well as chronic diseases. To reduce your overall oxidative stress burden, make sure you’re eating a healthful diet, full of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and getting plenty of exercise.
- Hyman, Mark. “Glutathione: The 'mother' of all antioxidants.”
- Lobo, V. et al. “Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health.” Pharmacognosy Review. 2010 Jul-Dec; 4(8): 118–126. doi: 10.4103/0973-7847.70902.
- Lustig, Robert. Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.
- Uttara, Bayani et al. “Oxidative Stress and Neurodegenerative Diseases: A Review of Upstream and Downstream Antioxidant Therapeutic Options.” Current Neuropharmacology. 2009 Mar; 7(1): 65–74. doi: 10.2174/157015909787602823.
MORE ABOUT JEANNE
Jeanne Rosner is a board certified anesthesiologist who practiced at Stanford Medical Center for nearly 20 years. In 2011 she began teaching nutrition classes in her son’s 5th grade science class which was an “Aha!” moment for her. She realized that learning and teaching about nutrition, health and wellness to her community was her destiny.
Since retiring from anesthesia, she has been a nutrition educator at local middle schools throughout the Bay Area. She teaches middle school children the importance of eating food closest to the source, making good food choices and eating in a balanced and moderate way.
In addition, Dr. Rosner started a venture called SOUL (seasonal, organic, unprocessed, local) Food Salon in 2014. She holds small gatherings (salons) with the mission of educating and empowering people to be healthier. The salons feature an expert in the health and wellness community who speaks about an interesting health topic. There are also salons with a chef/physician doing cooking demonstrations while using local and seasonal ingredients.