What Is Oxidative Stress?
You might have heard the term "oxidative stress" used to describe an unhealthy physical state. It's invoked frequently in health and science writing for good reason: researchers have uncovered links between oxidative stress and an increasing number of diseases — 200 at a recent count — involving every body system and ranging from degenerative eye disease to atherosclerosis, liver disease, heart failure, and Alzheimer's dementia. On a more everyday level, oxidative stress is also a culprit in the decline associated with aging as well as in muscle fatigue.
So what is oxidative stress? (If you recall a bit of general chemistry, feel free to skip this part. For everyone else, here's a quick recap.) Oxidation refers to the loss of electrons. In many chemical reactions, electrons are transferred — lost or gained. (In some cases, electrons are shared, but that's for a different lesson.)
Consider that we encounter oxidative processes all the time in daily life. A cut apple turns brown, as does a sliced avocado. Iron rusts. Copper turns greenish. These physical changes are evidence of oxidation.
Oxidation is a vital process that occurs in every cell in the body. Sometimes, though, normal oxidation reactions form strong byproducts, such as hydrogen peroxide, that are highly reactive — meaning they interact with many other substances, including DNA. These super-reactive substances are also known as "free radicals." In a healthy body system, repair agents called antioxidants (you have no doubt heard of those) help keep these free radicals in balance.
But when that balance is disturbed, oxidation can go from a normal process to a damaging one. The free radicals can interact with DNA, damaging it — and when there are not sufficient antioxidants to repair the damage, the change is permanent. On a cellular level, changes in DNA can cause premature cell aging and cell death. On a bodily level, these genetic changes can translate into inflammation and various disease states. The "stress" in oxidative stress refers to the imbalance in the oxidant/antioxidant system.
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Role of Supplemental Antioxidants
What can be done to help maintain or restore the balance? As with all areas of health and wellness, there is no magic fix, but there are ways to be proactive. A healthful diet is extremely important. Overconsumption of refined sugars has been shown to produce oxidative stress.
The last few decades have seen strong focus on the potential of antioxidants in the diet — "nutraceuticals" including berries, pomegranates, red wine, and dark chocolate, as well as vitamins C and E — to help protect against the effects of oxidative stress. The effects of dietary antioxidants are indirect and complex, and each may act in a specific way.
Another category of nutraceuticals includes polyphenols, plant-produced substances with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: the Ever-Greater Therapeutic
The Mediterranean diet — rich in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish — is well-known for its role in reducing the risk of many chronic diseases. Its benefits are attributed to the interplay of ingredients, but extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is being increasingly singled out as a key player in disease protection. Special focus is on EVOO's polyphenols: EVOO contains more than 30 of these bioactive powerhouses, including hydroxytyrosol and oleocanthal.
A growing body of recent research provides evidence of EVOO's power to help protect against oxidative stress. (No wonder Hippocrates dubbed olive oil "the great therapeutic"!) Several clinical trials have demonstrated EVOO's ability to decrease oxidative markers (in scientific terms, a "marker" is a specific measurement associated with a disease). And in a trial comparing high-polyphenol EVOO to lower-polyphenol EVOO, people who consumed high-polyphenol EVOO showed greater improvement in oxidative stress levels.
The Fresher the EVOO, the Higher Its Polyphenol Content
But EVOO's health-promoting powers have a limited shelf life. In fact, studies show that the polyphenols in EVOO lose about 40% of their potency after only 6 months. And, what's more, up to 80% of the "extra virgin" olive oil on supermarket shelves may be adulterated with cheaper soy or seed oils — or it may be fake altogether.
So what's a health-conscious person to do? Take the recommendation of healthcare professionals like those at the UC Davis Olive Oil Center, who recommend sourcing oils from the most recent global harvest in order to obtain the freshest, highest-phenolic EVOO. That's the only way for you to reap its multiple preventive health benefits. Here is my go-to source for independently lab-certified EVOO, imported quarterly from the world's latest harvest.
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