What is Oxidative Stress?
The term oxidative stress has been in the news in recent years. Yet if you’re not quite sure what this term means, you are not alone. What is oxidative stress - and why should you care? And what can you do about it?
When your body converts food into energy and when you exercise, highly unstable molecules known as free radicals are inevitably formed as a part of the process. These free radicals can cause what is known as oxidative stress - a process that can trigger damage within your cells. Of course this doesn’t imply that you should stop eating or exercising. But it does underscore the importance of meeting our natural need for a way to offset oxidative stress. You can also be exposed to free radicals from a variety of environmental sources, such as sunlight, air pollution, and cigarette smoke.
Technically, oxidation is a chemist’s term that refers to the process of removing electrons from an atom or molecule. We see physical evidence of oxidation when an apple turns brown, the silverware tarnishes, and the cast iron pot rusts. The result of this change can be destructive.
The attacks of free radicals, or unstable molecules, subject our cells to continuous damage, also known as oxidation. This process can convert healthy cells into cancerous ones, elevate your blood pressure, harden your arteries, promote inflammation, and accelerate the aging process.
Oxidative stress is believed to play a role in a multiple of diseases including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and eye diseases such as cataracts and age-related Macular Degeneration.
Antioxidants Are Your Defense
Nutrients called antioxidants help the body’s natural defense system combat this oxidation process. Which presents the next best question: where can you get a good supply of them?
Humans aren't the only living things that experience the dangers of oxidative stress. Plants are right in there with us. As a matter of fact, as relatively sedentary living systems - they can't move to protect themselves - plants have evolved a system of protection that doesn't involve escape. Instead, plants have developed a powerful system of defense. This defense comes largely in the form of phytochemicals known as antioxidants - a defense both plants and humans need for protection from oxidative stress.
Plants To The Rescue
Antioxidants are substances that reduce damage due to oxygen. The high concentration of antioxidants contained in plants is one of the most powerful reasons we need to eat a lot of them. This high antioxidant content of plants has become our healthy ally.
The colors that our eye sees in plants are visual evidence of these antioxidant phytochemicals. No doubt this is why the colors in plants have such appeal to us - we must perceive them as in our best benefit. Though the color spectrum of these phytochemicals is endless, they show up in five broad categories of color. These are: green, red, orange/yellow, blue/purple, and white.
While our bodies manufacture some antioxidants, the plants are the real workhorses when it comes to antioxidant production. This is not the least of the reasons behind the well-known health directive to "eat your vegetables."
Plants - Disease Protective
As the ultimate rich source of antioxidants, a plant-based diet is protective against chronic oxidative stress-related diseases. Studies strongly suggest that, over time, eating a diet rich in plant antioxidants offers protection against development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases.
The 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines encourage us to eat nine or more servings of vegetables and fruit, several servings of whole grains (grains are an antioxidant plant food too!). How does your plate today measure up? It’s easy to make a self assessment by putting together a simple check sheet on paper or electronic device. By putting a check mark every time you consume a serving of colorful fruits, vegetables, beans (plant food also high in antioxidants) and whole grains you can get a good idea of where you might look to increasing the antioxidant power of your diet.
Lani Muelrath, M.A., is an award-winning teacher, author, and top plant-based lifestyle coach. Certified Specialist in Behavior Change and Plant-Based Nutrition, Lani has been featured on CBS TV, ABC TV, Prevention, USA Today, and The Saturday Evening Post. Presenter for Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, Complete Health Improvement Program, and guest lecturer at San Francisco State University, Lani is Associate Faculty at Butte College where her book has been adopted as required text. She is the author of The Plant-Based Journey: A Step-by-Step Guide to Transition to a Healthy Lifestyle and Achieving Your Ideal Weight, recognized by VegNews as Top Media Pick for 2015, and Fit Quickies: 5 Minute Workouts. More from Lani at www.lanimuelrath.com, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.
Main Photo Credit: Aleksandra Zaitseva/shutterstock.com; Second Photo Credit: Seqoya/shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: gpointstudio/shutterstock.com; Fourth Photo Credit: Adisa/shutterstock.com