Five of the top leading causes of premature death in the United States (heart disease, cancer, lung disease, stroke and diabetes) are strongly linked to a physical state known as “oxidative stress,” which over time, degrades the proper functioning of important cells in our bodies that protect us from developing chronic health conditions.
Oxidative stress occurs when at least one of the two statements below are true (in reality, most people incur a combination of both of these oxidative stress creators):
- We ingest an overabundance of unhealthy pro-oxidant molecules through digestion, respiration and/or skin absorption.
- We do not ingest an adequate amount of healthy antioxidant molecules and antioxidant precursors through digestion and skin absorption.
What is Oxidative Stress?
In simple terms, oxidative stress is the result of an imbalance between the good guys (antioxidants) and bad guys (pro-oxidants) where there are far more bad guys circulating in our bodies than good guys.
When this happens, the pro-oxidant molecules have a field day damaging the protective linings of our lungs, blood vessels and digestive tracts.
By effectively punching gaping holes in these protective linings, pro-oxidant molecules make it easy for toxic chemicals, and bacteria and fungi in food, beverages and the air to find their way into underlying tissues of our major organs and muscles.
Unlike the cells of the protective linings of our vital pathways, the underlying cells have few natural protections to fight off the toxic chemicals, bacteria and fungi.
The toxic chemicals therefore penetrate the underlying cells at will and eventually disrupt the normal functions of these cells, often permanently.
The body’s reaction to these invading chemicals, bacteria and fungi is to become irritated, literally. This irritation often is most pronounced at the points of the lining penetrations and comes in the form of the release of massive amounts of infection-fighting proteins and white blood cells.
It’s sort of a last ditch effort by the vital pathway linings to counter pro-oxidants and their disease-producing allies (toxic chemicals, bacteria and fungi). Scientists refer to the massive build-up of these infection-fighting molecules and fluids as “inflammation.”
How do scientists know that oxidative stress is strongly linked to the five leading causes of death mentioned above? Because when examining the tissues and blood plasma of people with those conditions, they often find significant deficiencies in antioxidant levels combined with abnormally high levels of the infection-fighting proteins and white blood cells indicative of inflammation.
The Lung Cancer Connection
As a case in point, a new study published this month online ahead of print in the journal Nutrition examined the blood plasma levels of certain antioxidants in 60 healthy adults as compared with four early-stage lung cancer patients and 45 patients with advanced-stage lung cancer.[R]
In describing the purpose of their study, the authors explained: “The important risk factors for lung cancer are smoking, air pollution, and diet.
Due to the direct exposure to carcinogens and very high amounts of oxygen, the lung needs antioxidants for a defense mechanism against possible oxidative injury, to cope with undesirable oxygen activation.”
[Editor’s note: oxygen activation meaning the significant presence of pro-oxidant molecules in cigarette smoke and unhealthy foods.]
“At present, there is limited information regarding the antioxidant levels and nutritional status among lung cancer patients.
The purpose of this study was to determine serum levels of several non-enzymatic antioxidants including retinol, a-tocopherol, some carotenoids, some trace elements, and peroxidase activity in lung cancer patients compared with those of healthy controls.”
Based on the prevailing scientific view of the role of oxidative stress in chronic disease development, it is not surprising that the researchers discovered the healthy adults had significantly higher levels of nearly all of the core antioxidants studied (retinol, beta carotene, alpha tocopherol, lycopene, beta cryptoxanthin, selenium and zinc) in comparison to both sets of lung cancer patients.
However, there were two antioxidants (copper and peroxidase) that were actually higher in the lung cancer patient groups.
As further evidence of the connection between oxidative stress and disease development, advanced-stage lung cancer patients had significantly lower antioxidant levels than early-stage cancer patients for nearly all of the above antioxidants.
The study authors concluded, “Lung cancer patients had significantly lower antioxidant levels … There was a relationship between antioxidant levels and ECOG performance status.
Therefore, antioxidants and selenium supplementation should be further studied in patients with advanced disease, malnutrition, or poor ECOG performance status.” [Editor’s note: ECOG performance status is a measure that scientists use to determine the progression of cancer and survival prognosis when comparing cancer patients.
The study authors here are indicating that lower antioxidant levels were associated with advanced disease progression and poor patient prognosis.]
Previous research in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, other forms of lung disease and other forms of cancer have yielded similar conclusions although the specific antioxidants studied varies from study to study and from disease condition to disease condition.
The general point holds: Oxidative stress is strongly correlated with these chronic health conditions.
Fighting Oxidative Stress With Antioxidants
To combat oxidative stress you really have four options and, in our opinion, you get the greatest protection from combining all four:
1. Reduce ingestion of pro-oxidant molecules (e.g., cigarette smoke, industrial pollutants, saturated fats and highly processed foods).
2. Increase ingestion of antioxidant molecules through foods commonly found in the Mediterranean-style diet (e.g., monounsaturated fats, fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains).
3. Exercise at a moderate intensity on a regular basis. Moderate exercise boosts the body’s total antioxidant capacity, i.e., its ability to efficiently utilize and/or produce circulating antioxidants.
4. Complement the above actions by adding targeted antioxidant dietary supplements to your daily routine.
A significant percentage of people in our country are antioxidant deficient because they don’t follow a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
Further, our antioxidant defenses are additionally depleted by one or more of the following: lack of consistent exposure to direct sunlight, the use of one or more prescription medications, excessive alcohol use, and the existing presence of one or more of the above disease conditions.
Therefore, even if one adopts healthier diet and exercise habits and reduces consumption of pro-oxidants, the chances are that most of us will still find ourselves in an antioxidant-deficient state. In our opinion, complementing these actions by adding targeted antioxidants can help your body combat oxidative stress.
While research is mixed on what specific antioxidants are most effective and what specific dosages are optimal, there is enough research evidence to suggest that supplementing antioxidants can boost blood plasma antioxidant levels and reduce levels of inflammation-related proteins and other molecules.
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