by Charles Poliquin ~ source
Oxidative stress will make you tired, fat, sick, and old. It’s those lines at the corner of your eyes and the ache in your knees after hard training. Anytime you feel pain in your body you can bet there’s oxidative stress to go with it.
Oxidative stress affects you ALL THE TIME, but it’s a hard concept to get a handle on. Most of you will tune out when you hear words associated with it like biomarkers, mitochondria, glutathione, redox, oxidation, and telomeres. If you care at all, you probably just want to be told what you need to do to avoid it!
This article will provide a simple explanation of oxidative stress, and give tips to prevent it with a focus on physical performance and body composition.
#1: Oxidative Stress Equals Accelerated Aging
Oxidative stress is what happens when all the stuff (also known as molecules) in the body come in contact with oxygen. These molecules become oxidized or “burned” and lose an electron, making them unstable. They bounce around and cause damage to cells if they aren’t “cleaned up” or neutralized. The effect is accelerated aging, ultimately leading to death.
The simple and necessary acts of breathing and eating cause oxidative stress. If you eat clean, and breath clean air, the body is generally able to deal with the stress. However, even that base level of oxidative stress does take a toll, which is evident when we look at how calorie restriction reduces oxidative stress, promoting longevity.
For example, the people of Okinawa, Japan eat a low-calorie, nutrient-rich diet that leads to very low body fat and extreme longevity. Okinawans have the highest prevalence of centenarians in the world, and very low disease rates. The belief is that because they eat fewer calories, and those they do eat are derived from whole plant-based foods, they experience very low levels of oxidative stress.
This is not a practical dietary model for athletes or anyone interested in building and maintaining muscle mass (as the Okinawans have low body fat, they also have low muscle mass). However, the principal point to take from the Okinawa diet is that you need to provide the body with key nutrients at the right times to fight oxidative stress and help the cells regenerate.
#2: Oxidation Is A Problem When It Overwhelms The Body
You are familiar with the process of oxidation: It is the browning of an apple or pear that has been cut open and exposed to oxygen. Inside the body, oxidative stress means that cell membranes get damaged and rusty, while internal cellular pieces like damaged DNA and other debris accumulate, affecting nearby cells. It’s like garbage that’s not taken away, so it builds up, leading to inflammation.
The body can get overwhelmed by oxidative stress very quickly because all of the following things produce it:
• Smoking, drinking alcohol, and taking prescription drugs.
• Eating, particularly animal-derived protein and fat, and non-plant based carbs.
• Ingesting pesticides from produce, or antibiotics and hormones in animal products.
• Eating processed foods with artificial flavorings and dyes.
• Exposure to pollution and toxins in water, air, or in personal care products.
• Trauma or injury to muscle, bone, skin, and connective tissue.
• Muscle-damaging anaerobic training.
• Endurance exercise.
The body has methods of dealing with all this stress—cells have internal “digestive systems” that allow them to literally eat themselves, recycle the stressful waste products, and repair.
Naturally, cells recover best when they have time and specific nutrients that help them grow. That’s where antioxidants come in. Another term that’s hard to pin down, antioxidants do two key things: 1) They neutralize free radicals, creating a cascade of oxidation and anti-oxidation. 2) They provide the raw materials needed for the body’s built-in antioxidant, called glutathione, to “clean up” the antioxidant cascade.
#3: Glutathione Can Save You. Antioxidants Will Help
The body’s natural antioxidant system allows for removal of oxidative stress when it is functioning at a high level. Glutathione is the powerhouse of this system. It is made from the amino acids cysteine, glycine, and glutamine, and is a very “sticky” molecule. This allows it to attach to free radicals and oxidative stress biomarkers and begin the process of removing them.
Glutathione can’t do it all on its own. It requires certain enzymes to function, which is where antioxidants come into play. Certain antioxidants such as catechins (in green tea), tannins (in raspberries), flavanones (in citrus), anthocyanin (in berries), flavonoids (in onions and broccoli), sterols (in olive oil), and phenolic acids (in coffee) provide nutrients that enhance enzyme activity, thereby supporting glutathione.
So, you need a lot of glutathione to save you, but you need robust enzyme activity for glutathione to function, which is why antioxidants can help counter oxidative stress. The key is to employ a multifaceted approach: 1) Support glutathione levels by getting extra cysteine, glycine, and glutamine, 2) Support enzymes and the antioxidant cascade by getting a wide variety of antioxidants in food and supplements, 3) Minimize exposure to those things listed above in #2 that cause oxidative stress, 4) Do the activities in #4 that fight oxidative stress.
#4: Real-Life Tips To Fight Oxidative Stress
Be aware that chronic endurance exercise causes a lot of oxidative stress and can significantly compromise health in the long run. This has led some coaches and athletes to look for ways to minimize the negative effect of all that stress since it can compromise performance. Here are the top four activities you can use to fight oxidative stress, whether from endurance training or daily life:
• Strength training has been shown to elevate glutathione and decrease oxidative stress. It’s the perfect way to manage stress because it lets you get rid of your aggressions, while enhancing the body’s antioxidant system. For example, one recent study found both a hypertrophy-type and a strength-type training protocol done for six weeks increased resting levels of glutathione by the end of the study. Markers of oxidative stress were lower as well.
• Practice a martial art to raise glutathione and decrease markers of stress. A series of studies have shown that practices including judo, tai chi, tae kwon do, jiu jitsu, soo bahk do, and aikido all decrease oxidative stress.
Researchers don’t know what uniquely sets martial arts apart from other physical activities in enabling the body to better counter stress, but they do note the benefits to be robust. It probably has something to do with them being mind-body activities that have the capacity to change energy flow in the body.
• Meditation can raise glutathione and counter oxidative stress. For example, research shows that IL-6, a stress biomarker, is lower in people who have an effective meditation practice. Yoga can also fight oxidative stress, however, research shows mediation may be more effective than yoga for raising glutathione.
• Laughing can increase glutathione and fight oxidative stress. Research shows that inducing genuine laughter can prevent cellular and genetic damage from oxidative stress. The effect is a healthier immune system, and down the road, a longer life.
#5: Supplement with Nutrients To Fight Oxidative Stress: The Top Ten
Some of these nutrients can be gotten in your diet, some should be supplemented for best results. Be aware that key times to get these nutrients are post-workout, with any animal-based protein or fat meal, when taking prescription medication, when sleep-deprived, and before and after exposure to toxins like alcohol or cigarette smoke (the second-hand kind—they certainly won’t save you if you smoke).
• Omega-3 fish oil are highly effective at fighting oxidative stress and they improve cellular health. Focus on getting a lot of EPA and DHA.
• Green tea from organic tea or a capsule will reduce oxidative stress that damages the liver from alcohol or prescription medications.
• Alpha Lipoic Acid is one of the only antioxidants that is fat and water soluble, meaning it can eliminate oxidative stress in water, fat, or blood. It enhances insulin health and will raise energy levels over time.
• Vitamin D is needed for successful gene replication. If you don’t have enough, oxidative stress will mount, causing inflammation throughout the body.
• Zinc is needed for glutathione enzyme production, and it is great for detoxifying heavy metals from the body.
• Curcumin may be the most powerful antioxidant herb available. It gets rid of oxidative stress, helps detoxify excess estrogen, and raises glutathione.
• Greens and berries are the darlings of the antioxidant world. Both will raise glutathione and eradicate oxidative stress.
• Carnitine is a wonder nutrient that will improve your energy levels, enhance fat burning, and fight oxidative stress. One study showed it decreases oxidative stress produced by the liver and another showed it improves brain health.
• Whey protein is unique from other animal-based proteins because it fights oxidative stress and raises glutathione.
• Vitamin C, selenium, CoQ10, cocoa, grape seeds, spices (turmeric, ginger, boswellia), garlic, grapes, and kiwis are other oxidative stress fighters to include in your diet and supplement plan.