The Fundamentals of Functional Medicine series is intended to be an overview of the common elements and underlying imbalances behind chronic illness of all kinds, including inflammation, oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, and gut dysbiosis.
What is oxidative stress?
In functional medicine, there is a great emphasis on looking for the underlying causes of disease, rather than just treating the symptoms. There are a few key imbalances and issues that underlie many different chronic illnesses and health concerns, and when taking a root-cause focused, whole person and personalized approach to health, it is essential to understand and address these issues.
Oxidative stress is one of these key underlying problems, and it has been linked to the development and progression of chronic illnesses from heart disease and diabetes to autoimmune disease and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
So, what is oxidative stress? To put it as simply as possible, oxidative stress is an imbalance between unstable molecules called free radicals, and the antioxidant molecules that stabilize them.
As pictured below, what makes free radicals “unstable” is that they have an odd number of electrons in their outer shell. In other words, they’re missing one electron, and they need to find one in order to be stabilized.
A free radical will cruise around the body and essentially “steal” its missing electron from another cell, which completes the first free radical’s mission, but creates a new free radical in its place. This, not surprisingly, can set off a disruptive chain reaction, which can end up damaging cells, tissue, proteins, and our DNA.
Where antioxidants come in is that they have the ability to donate an electron to a free radical without losing their own stability and setting off the chain reaction.
Some free radicals are normal and even necessary. They’re a byproduct of metabolism, a natural part of our immune system response, and are produced when we exercise. We run into trouble when there is too much free radical activity, and not enough antioxidant activity to keep up: that is oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress can contribute to chronic inflammation, and inflammation produces free radicals which can perpetuate oxidative stress in a vicious loop.
What causes oxidative stress?
There are a number of dietary, lifestyle, and environmental factors that can lead to increased free radical production, decreased antioxidant activity or levels, and oxidative stress. Oxidative stress and damage is generally caused by a combination of different factors.
The following are among the factors that can contribute to oxidative stress:
- • Eating processed foods, refined sugar, and refined carbohydrates
- • Exposure to pesticides; exposure to toxins (i.e. BPA in plastic, etc)
- • Chronic and/or high stress
- • The use of certain medications
- • Lack of exercise
- • Smoking cigarettes
- • Heavy metal exposure (from water, air, soil, dental amalgams)
- • Low antioxidant production/activity (there is sometimes a genetic component here)
- • Lack of good quality sleep; a disrupted sleep cycle
- • An imbalance between inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids and anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids in the diet
- • Iron overload
- • Drinking alcohol
- • Obesity
15 Tips for Prevention of Oxidative Stress
We can’t completely avoid all of the factors that may contribute to free radical production and oxidative stress, but there are a number of choices we can make about our diet, lifestyle, habits, and environment that can help to balance out free radical activity with antioxidant activity.
- 1. Eat a balanced diet that is rich in whole foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, and eliminate processed foods and refined carbohydrates
- 2. In order to restore a healthy circadian rhythm or sleep cycle, avoid devices and screens for at least 1-2 hours before bed, work on a consistent sleep schedule, and try a digital detox to reduce blue light exposure (and reduce stress, among many other benefits!)
- 3. Filter drinking water
- 4. Whenever possible, choose organic produce and animal products in order to limit pesticide exposure
- 5. Find a form of exercise that you enjoy and exercise regularly
- 6. Enjoy plenty of antioxidant-rich foods, including berries, prunes, dark leafy greens, broccoli, carrots, nuts, green tea, turmeric, and cinnamon
- 7. Treat any underlying infections
- 8. If you have (silver) dental amalgams, speak with your holistic dentist and/or practitioner about safe removal
- 9. Limit alcohol consumption
- 10. Replace inflammatory omega 6 vegetable oils (i.e. canola, peanut oils) with extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil when cooking
- 11. Include healthy, anti-inflammatory fats like avocado, wild-caught seafood, nuts, seeds, and olives in the diet
- 12. Find a daily mindfulness or stress reduction practice that works for you, whether it’s meditation, yoga, or walks in nature
- 13. Quit smoking if applicable (speak with your general practitioner for assistance)
- 14. Avoid plastic water bottles and plastic food containers (especially if microwaved or refrigerated)
- 15. Speak with your practitioner about whether supplementing with antioxidants and/or antioxidant co-factors may be right for you. Beneficial supplements may include vitamins A, C, or E, glutathione, CoQ10, lipoic acid, milk thistle, resveratrol, and certain B vitamins.
If you suspect that your body may be in a state of oxidative stress, and/or if you are experiencing symptoms of fatigue, pain, brain fog, anxiety, or other symptoms for which you haven’t been able to find a cause, request a virtual or in-person functional medicine consultation with Dr. Gannage, MD.
For more personalized guidance, request a functional medicine consultation with Dr. John Gannage, MD.
Stay informed. Follow Dr. Gannage on Facebook and sign up for our newsletter for the latest articles and news about health, nutrition, and functional medicine.