Oxidative Stress and its Impact upon Aging

When metal parts, like the hinge on your door or nails in the fence, become old, they usually become rusty. This change alters their properties so that instead of being sturdy and smooth, rusted metal is weakened, fragile and flaky. Ultimately, rust means that these objects don’t work as they should, the door creaks and the fence pails fall down with every puff of wind. Although we are not make out of iron, we can certainly get rusty as we get older.

Oxygen is the problem. Oxygen is the essence of the air we breathe. It is vital for the creation of energy. Without it, we would die. But this dependence comes at a cost. As our body uses oxygen as fuel to do the things that need to be done, a very small proportion is converted into toxic products collectively known as Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS or free radicals).

As their name suggests, Reactive Oxygen Species are highly reactive. In fact, they can react with almost anything with which they come in contact. If the working bits of the body, like its proteins, DNA and lipids are attached by free radicals, eventually they become so modified that they don’t work as they should. Just like with a rusty nail, the cumulative burden of these modifications is one of the most important elements in the ageing process.

The most common victims of free radicals are those things that live closest to where free radicals are generated in the cell’s powerhouse – the mitochondria. Unfortunately, damage to mitochondria means less efficient use of oxygen for energy production, which further increase in production of free radicals in a vicious cycle. This is one reason why the production of free radicals increases gradually as we get older. If the production of free radicals outstrips our antioxidant defense mechanisms, a state of oxidative stress is said to exist. And slowing ageing is all about reducing oxidative stress.

Each cell and each tissue in our bodies has its own antioxidant defence systems to remove free radicals before they can do damage. These include enzymes that catalyse the destruction of free radicals, as well as antioxidant decoys that prevent damage by ‘taking the bullet’ themselves, thereby preventing other more important targets from becoming modified. There is good evidence that the effectiveness of these antioxidant defences correlates with lifespan. In general, the body’s production of endogenous antioxidants declines as we grow older, while production of free radicals increases, leading to oxidative stress, as well as aging itself.

When attacked by free radicals, proteins, DNA and lipids don’t work as they should, and as with rusty metal, function declines. If the production of free radicals outstrips our (antioxidant) defense mechanisms, a state of oxidative stress is said to exist. Oxidative stress is one of the most important elements of the aging process. There is a lot we can do to bolster our antioxidant defenses, as well as erode them prematurely. Unequivocally, diets naturally high in antioxidants can improve health and prolong life and have done so for centuries.

Options for increasing your intake of antioxidants

  • Eat fresh food
    • Plant a vegetable garden. If you are in an apartment then plant vegetables in pots
    • Check out your local farmer’s market and shop there on the weekend
    • Avoid anything in a sealed packet or tin
    • Shop online and so avoid impulse purchases at the supermarket
  • Eat whole foods that retain their natural antioxidants (whole grain, whole fruit and vegetables)
  • Increase your intake of herbs
    • Buy parsley, chives, coriander, sage and thyme and other salad herbs and keep in a sealed container for daily use in salads, soups, curries and casseroles
    • Plant some basil so you can easily make your own quick pesto sauce – blend pine nuts, garlic, basil and olive oil
    • Reduce your intake of coffee and soft drinks and increase the intake of herbal teas such as lemongrass, camomile, liquorice or peppermint
    • Try new salads that are predominately made from herbs such as tabbouli (parsley). Also Sabzi or herb salad is made from fresh spinach, rocket, celery, mint, parsley, basil, dill, spring onions, olive oil and lemon juice
  • Increase your intake of spices
    • Toss turmeric with fish and rice with steamed veggies for a quick meal
    • Have a curry meal once per week
    • Stew apples, rhubarb or pears with cinnamon sticks and cloves; serve with yoghurt for a delicious dessert or breakfast
    • Substitute your coffee for a chai latte
    • Add chilli flakes to your spaghetti sauce
    • Add turmeric to taste to scrambled eggs
    • Sprinkle cinnamon on your porridge
  • Follow the rainbow to get important antioxidants via your food
    • Orange and deep yellow = beta-carotene. Try carrots and apricots, cantaloupe, grapefruit, oranges, mangoes, papaya, pineapple, peaches, bananas, butternut squash and yellow peppers
    • Red and pink = lycopenes and ellagic acid. Try raspberries, red grapes, tomatoes, guava, apricots, watermelon, papaya and pink grapefruit
    • Dark green = lutein and zeaxanthin. Try spinach, silverbeet, romaine lettuce, broccoli, zucchini, corn, green peas and Brussels sprouts
    • Purple, dark red and blue = flavonoids. Flavonoids are the most abundant and powerful of all the phytochemicals contained in the foods we eat. Try blackberries, blueberries, dried plums/prunes, raisins, purple cabbage, eggplant and purple potatoes
  • Increase your intake of fresh fruit
    • Slice fresh fruit over porridge
    • Make delicious fruit-based desserts, such as fruit crumble with apple and rhubarb, baked apples or poached seasonal fruit such as pears or stone fruit
    • Dice fresh fruit and take to work as a quick convenient snack rather than eating a muesli bar
    • Make a delicious fresh fruit platter for breakfast, a snack or for dessert
    • Dice fresh fruit and keep in a container in the fridge so it is a quick convenient snack – this works well with fresh melon
    • Have a smoothie if you are on the run and tend to miss breakfast
  • Increase your intake of vegetables
    • Chop vegetables and serve with hummus or salsa or hummus for a snack
    • Have vegetables at breakfast – add tomatoes, asparagus and mushrooms to omelettes
    • Ask for extra salad in a sandwich or roll for lunch or take a big fresh salad in a container to work for lunch
    • Enhance pasta sauces by adding grated veggies
    • Get a V-slicer and make interesting salads with zucchini and fennel
    • Get a juicer and if on the run make a veggie juice. Combinations of carrot, apple, celery, beetroot and parsley are delicious and packed with antioxidants
  • Eat raw or cook vegetables until ‘just crisp and tender’ to retain nutrients
    • Stir-fry, water fry or steam your vegetables instead of boiling in water or microwaving
    • Add fresh herbs at the last minute and stir through to retain the high antioxidant levels
    • Eat carrot, celery or capsicum sticks as snacks. Have with fresh yoghurt dip for extra taste
    • Buy a soup recipe book


Last Reviewed: 27-Jan-2014

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