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Over 125 clinical diseases have been linked to oxidative stress as a major cause or contributing factor to disease progression. Oxidative stress refers to chemical stress at a cellular level. When not correctly managed naturally by antioxidants in the body, these chemicals wreak havoc causing inflammation, physical stress, and in the end disease.
Biology 101 - Cell Structure
To fully understand oxidative stress, you must first understand cell structure. Cells are the building blocks of, well, you. You are made of trillions of cells, all differentiated to their specific system and job. Each cell is like its own little organism with an external layer, cytoplasm liquid inside, and organelles that do different jobs.
The outer layer is call the phospholipid bilayer, and it makes up the "skin" of the cell. The job of the bilayer is to control what comes in and out of the cells, and add protection.
Within the cells, cytoplasm makes up the liquid, jelly-like, portion.
The nucleus is the control center, or the "brain" of the cell. The nucleus houses your DNA and depending on what type of cell we are talking about, is responsible for coding different enzymes and functions.
They cytoplasm organelles are small "organs" that are suspended in the cytoplasm. Some regulate the production of proteins coded by the nucleus. Some recycle dead components, bacteria, and viruses. Some package chemicals to be transported out of the cell and into the body. Some (the mitochondria) convert the calories you consume into energy and so much more.
Mitochondria and Krebs
Mitochondria are the power source of the cells, and your body. This is where your body turns the calories you eat, the water you drink and the oxygen you breathe into energy that fuels life...mitochondria are very important.
The chemical cycle that converts these macronutrients into energy is called the Krebs Cycle, or Citric Acid Cycle. I absolutely love this cycle...in fact it was one of the first science topics I taught my kids (they asked how food became energy, it was their fault).
The Krebs cycle consists of 8 steps. Each step requires water, oxygen and vitamins (specifically B vitamins, but also vitamin C, Coenzyme Q10, & Magnesium). Each step also produces a natural byproduct...a chemical pollutant. This is an engine turning fuel into energy (ATP) and just like the engine of your vehicle it produces heat, energy & pollutants that must be neutralized.
Understanding Oxidative Stress
In comes antioxidants; the antioxidants your body makes through other biological functions (such as folate Methylation and B6 enzymes) and the antioxidants you consume through your diet.
This production of pollution is natural oxidation...think of it as the exhaust from our engine. If you sit in an enclosed garage and have no way of neutralizing or removing the exhaust you get very sick and can die from the toxic buildup. The same thing happens in the body. If you have a continual buildup of these oxidants and do not remove them the cells get sick and can die...and if your cells get sick and die, you have disease and in the end death.
The mitochondria also house some DNA, which has been known to mutate under oxidation. When the Mitochondria replicates, these mutations also replicate. So when the damage occurs in one mitochondria it is passed down to future mitochondria and you get generations of organelles that carry diseased DNA.
Another thing we see is that when a cell cannot convert calories into energy (we see an insufficiency in the Krebs cycle with oxidation), the cell actually goes into a process called apoptosis or cell death. A natural way of clearing out dysfunctional cells. When the body is riddled with oxidation, though, we see lots of cell death.
Some level of oxidative stress is a normal part of aging. As we get older, our natural production of antioxidant enzymes goes down and future generations of mitochondria become weaker...thus, we get older. This is a natural progression with age.
When we see oxidative stress and aging cells before their time, this is disease.
Oxidative Stress Causes
So, what would cause an imbalance in the ratio of oxidative compounds and antioxidants...well, a couple of things:
Oxidative Stress & Disease
Long term oxidative stress increases cellular inflammation, weakens metabolism, damages DNA, and causes cell death. Certain organ systems are more likely to be affected by oxidative stress.
Prevention & Treatment
You have probably already heard me say this before, "prevention is easier than treatment." The lifestyle and diet you choose influences your propensity for oxidative stress disease.
If you have a disease that is linked to oxidative stress, all of the above are also important in treatment, but you may need extra support.