Oxidative Stress as it Relates to Chronic Diseases of Aging

Oxidative stress is known to be a precursor to over 200 chronic, degenerative disease, including atherosclerosis, Parkinsons’ disease, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and many auto-immune disorders.

The following will help you understand more about what brings about oxidative stress, and how you can limit the effects of this process as you age and accumulate free radicals.

Wikipedia defines Oxidative stress as “an imbalance between the production and manifestation of reactive oxygen species and a biological system’s ability to readily detoxify the reactive intermediates or to repair the resulting damage.

Disturbances in the normal redox state of tissues can cause toxic effects through the production of peroxides and free radicals that damage all components of the cell, including proteins, lipids, and DNA.

Some reactive oxidative species can even act as messengers through a phenomenon called “redox signaling”.

Oxidation and Glycation

bananaWhen you leave a banana unpeeled for very long, or bite into an apple and wait, what happens?

That brown color begins to appear….. This is oxidation.

That is not to be confused with oxygenation, a crucial process by which oxygen is delivered to our cells and is necessary for our very survival.

But as far as oxidation goes, this is like the rusting of our cells.

What happens after sugar is heated and melts in a pan, or when vegetables are pan fried?

The brown that occurs in these cases is a result of caramelization, which is a chemical change involving internal rearrangement of sugar molecules. The physiological term for this is glycation. It is a similar chemical change that turns paper yellow over time.

Both of these browning and caramelization phenomena occur normally in living systems, and do not require the application of heat, however, the body temperature is conducive to them given the sugars and proteins present. As we metabolize carbohydrates, sugars are formed in the body.

Age Spots are Signs of Accumulated Oxidative Stress

High levels of sugar in the blood cause damaging affects. Aging is a result of our tissues undergoing this browning and caramelization over time. Another residual effect is the brown age pigment, evident in the spots that begin to appear on the skin as we age (usually referred to as ‘liver spots’).

This age pigment is called lipofuscin and is a mixture of free radical-damaged fats, proteins and metals, particularly iron. It is a waste by-product of worn out cells that are not eliminated from the body, but are deposited in places that are not even seen, such as the heart and brain.

Most knowledge on the accumulation of lipofuscin are from studies of the eye, where it is suspected to be related to the causes of macular degeneration.

Some experts believe that lipofuscin is a result of the interaction between cellular waste and free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules created by oxidation reactions.

People with high sugar levels in their blood, including those who suffer with diabetics, are prone to more accelerated effects of aging.

Doctors have long been observed an increased number of age-related diseases in people with diabetes, including cataracts and atherosclerosis. They know that this pathology is closely tied to the chemical reactions between glucose and proteins, a process called glycation, which is the caramelization effect mentioned earlier.

Oxidation and Free Radicals

Oxidation is the term used to describe the process and removing electrons from the molecule It strips electrons from other molecules, and can actually damage those molecules, rendering them defenseless or useless. It results in the production of peroxides and free radicals that damage all components of the cell, including proteins, lipids, and DNA.

Oxygen is destructive, as is evident in rust. We need it to live, but too much is toxic and corrosive to the body. This is why living systems require defenses against oxidation.

These defense systems have evolved for different purposes over time, such as for protection against solar radiation, which when interacting with water, produces oxygen along with free radicals, the unstable elements that later cause damage to nearby cells.

In the effort to stabilize, these free radicals react with nearby molecules, stripping electrons from them. This effectively damages the protection these cells have against the free radicals.

This causes a chain reaction of more unstable molecules causing a domino effect. They stop the chaos only when two radicals react with each other such as to form a stable molecule or when the reaction is too weak to interact with another molecules.

In its extreme, this is the mechanism of radiation poisoning. This process damages DNA, proteins, cell membranes and other structures.

During respiration, metabolization of glucose with oxygen occurs, producing water and carbon dioxide. The dangerous molecules created are called reactive oxygen species, or ROS.

Two of these are free radicals (the hydroxyl radical and the superoxide radical, the most damaging); the third is hydrogen peroxide. Anti-oxidant defenses protect living things from oxydative stress, which is directly related to the development of age-related diseases.

Importance of Anti-Oxidants

In summary, oxydative stress is simply the total burden placed on the body by the constant production of free radicals over the course of metabolization, in addition to the other environmental stresses such as toxins in food, water and air.  Smoke is one of the most concentrated sources of free radicals.

It is obvious that good health has to be a balance of burning the fuel required to create energy, and minimizing the oxidation that occurs as a result. That is to say, balance the oxidative stress with antioxidant defenses.

The inability of antioxidant defenses to cope with oxidative stress will cause defects in the DNA, proteins and membranes over time.

It can be concluded then, that if antioxidant defenses are strong, life without disease should be possible. According to Dr. Hari Sharma, a pathologist at Ohio State University, about 80 to 90 percent of diseases we encounter are linked to excessive production of free radicals in the body.

While it is true that antioxidants can be obtained from eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, these ‘direct antioxidants’ do not alone provide the protection against the billions of free radicals that we accumulate over time. The reason is that each of these direct antioxidant molecules is rendered inert after neutralizing one free radical.

What our bodies do have is the ability to create more powerful enzyme antioxidants through ‘indirect antioxidants’, which are compounds that trigger our genes to produce them.

As we age, we naturally produce less of these important antioxidants, such as Superoxide Dismutase, Catalayse, and Glutithione, which neutralize tens of millions of oxidative stress producing free radicals every minute.

The key is to supplement your body with what it needs to slow the effects of oxidative stress and aging.


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