What is oxidative stress?

Oxidation, which occurs during a number of natural processes within the body including detoxification and immune response, produces unstable molecules known as “free radicals”. Free radicals are normal, and the healthy body is equipped to stabilize them with what we can think of as super-stable molecules: antioxidants. There is a simple way to visualize this. Picture a circle with a ring around it: this is your molecule. The ring– or outer shell– of the molecule has a certain number of electrons (particles with negative electric charges): picture them as little dots. Most molecules have an even number of electrons on their outer shell. These molecules are stable. Free radicals have an uneven number of electrons on their outer shell, making them unstable, and potentially damaging. But they want to join the ranks of the stable– and to accomplish this, they steal electrons from normal molecules, turning them into free radicals, and setting off a chaotic chain reaction.

So where do antioxidants come in? We described them above as being “super-stable”. Antioxidants are able to donate an electron to a free radical without losing their own stability.

Oxidative stress occurs when we have an imbalance: too many free radicals, and not enough antioxidants to combat them. Left to their own devices, free radicals cause damage to our cells.

Oxidative stress occurs and increases with essentially any stress, inside or outside of the body, physical or emotional. If this sounds extremely broad, well… it is. Brought on by factors including toxins, environmental pollutants, emotional stress, viruses, infections, and diet, oxidative stress has been linked to conditions from anxiety and depression (1) to chronic fatigue syndrome (2) to cardiovascular disease (3) and cancer (4). It is also one of the primary mechanisms involved in aging (5), and has been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (6).

Where does sugar come in?

How exactly does sugar accelerate oxidative stress? Oxidation occurs during a number of specific processes. One of the times when oxidation happens is when our bodies are processing sugar. The more we eat sugar, the more oxidation occurs.

It is the mitochondria, the energy “powerhouses” within our cells, that use glucose (blood sugar) to produce energy. Free radicals are a natural byproduct of this process. Excess glucose = excess free radical production.

The liver, our body’s detoxification centre, can also become overwhelmed with a high intake of sugar. This leads to inflammation, which leads to the production of more free radicals.

One important example of the link between sugar, oxidative stress, and disease is what we see in type 2 diabetes.

Blood sugar (glucose) comes from the consumption of sugars and carbohydrates. We mentioned above that the mitochondria use glucose within our cells to produce energy. Before this process can happen, though, glucose needs to be able to enter our cells from the bloodstream. It is the hormone insulin that makes this happen. When our intake of sugar is too high, it overwhelms this system, and our cells’ response to insulin begins to fail. This means that we are left with all of this extra glucose hanging out in the bloodstream, wreaking havoc by increasing the production of free radicals, increasing inflammation, damaging our cells, and causing oxidative stress.

Insulin resistance develops and increases over time if this problem is not caught and solved early enough. Eventually, it develops into type 2 (insulin resistant) diabetes, and oxidative stress brought on in part by sugar is a major contributor (7).

Intake of sugar has also been linked many times over to the development of cardiovascular disease; research points to oxidative stress as one key mechanism in this process (8).

Beyond diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the list of illnesses that have been linked to oxidative stress is extensive and includes autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis (9); neurodegenerative diseases (10); mental illnesses (11); and cancer (12).  

How can I prevent this?

We’re not really going to give you an answer as simple as reducing your intake of sugar, are we? Yes. Cutting out sugar may not be a complete cure-all for oxidative stress or the conditions it contributes to, but it is a solid start, and a step that you can take NOW.

Other simple steps that you can take to increase antioxidant protection and reduce oxidative stress include avoiding hydrogenated fats, limiting intake of alcohol, choosing organic foods, and increasing intake of antioxidant foods (such as kale, berries, beets, ginger, green tea, nuts and seeds). If you believe that you’re in need of extra support, talk to your practitioner about antioxidant supplements including glutathione.  

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