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You may know that oxidative stress is bad for your health. If so, you may go to great lengths to avoid the most obvious sources of oxidative stress.

But did you know that some causes of oxidative stress are not so apparent? It’s true! You may be surrounded by biological and environmental causes of oxidative stress and unaware of it.

Here’s what you need to know about the hidden causes of oxidative stress.

What Is Oxidative Stress?

Oxidative stress is an imbalance of unhealthy free radicals and the antioxidants that fight them.

Free radicals develop from normal body processes, such as digesting food and turning fat into energy. At the right levels, free radicals are beneficial to human health. They promote cell communication, for example, and help the body defend against infection.

Free radicals can harm human health, though, especially in large numbers. More specifically, free radicals are unstable molecules that “steal” electrons from other molecules, turning those molecules into free radicals too. Stealing electrons can alter the molecule’s DNA, change the cell’s membrane to alter what enters and leaves the cell, and damage the body in other ways.

Most importantly, free radicals can cause chain chemical reactions as they interact with other molecules. Researchers refer to these widespread reactions as oxidation.

One type of free radical, reactive oxygen radicals (ROS), are highly reactive and unstable chemicals capable of causing widespread damage associated with oxidative stress.

Introducing antioxidants – your body’s defense against free radicals

Antioxidants neutralize free radicals to stop this damage. In a perfect world, the body produces the right amounts of antioxidants to balance out the free radicals. The world is far from perfect, though, and several factors promote the development of free radicals. Still, more factors suppress the production or the effectiveness of antioxidants.

When the body cannot produce enough antioxidants, free radicals can grow to outnumber them. Scientists refer to this imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants as oxidative stress. The imbalance of oxidative stress may result from excessive free radicals, too few antioxidants, or a combination of the two.

Effects of oxidative stress on your body

The effects of oxidative stress vary widely, and the effects are not always harmful. Exercise can cause a temporary increase in free radicals, for example, but oxidative stress regulates tissue growth and triggers the production of antioxidants.

Effects of oxidative stress examples include:

  • Chronic inflammation
  • Neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions
  • Inflammatory disorders
  • Asthma
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome

What Causes Oxidative Stress?


Digesting food produces free radicals but does so in such low levels that it does not cause oxidative stress imbalance. However, consistently overeating can cause the body to produce too many free radicals, thereby causing oxidative stress.

When it comes to controlling oxidative stress, the quality of food counts as much as the quantity. Convenience foods, prepackaged snacks, and other processed foods tend to be high in polyunsaturated fats and cooking oils that are susceptible to oxidation during the cooking and storage processes, for example. This oxidation in food can cause free radicals in the body.

Oxidative stress is associated with certain foods, such as:

  • Processed foods
  • Foods high in fat
  • Foods high in carbohydrates, such as candy, bread, soft drinks, and pancakes
  • Ham, bacon, deli meat, and other foods containing preservatives, which may contain free radicals

Lifestyle factors

Lifestyle choices can have a great effect on the development of oxidative stress. These lifestyle factors include:

  • Smoking – cigarette smoke contains several highly unstable free radicals, which enhance ROS and weaken antioxidant systems to cause oxidative stress
  • Alcohol – stimulates the activity of an enzyme that contributes to ROS production and reduces antioxidants

Environmental toxins

A growing body of literature shows that exposure to air pollution is one of the leading causes of oxidative stress. Other natural sources can increase ROS or decrease antioxidants. These environmental sources include coal mine dust, heavy metals, certain drugs, chemical solvents, exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke, and radiation.

3 Lesser-Known Causes of Oxidative Stress

Vitamin deficiency

Certain vitamin deficiencies can cause oxidative stress. Vitamin D helps control oxidative stress by regulating ROS levels, so a vitamin D deficiency can trigger oxidative stress. Vitamin B12 deficiency may also cause oxidative stress, in that the vitamin helps antioxidants scavenge for free radicals and protects against inflammation caused by oxidative stress.

Emotional stress

Emotional distress can cause physiological changes. Research shows that acute emotional stress can lead to detectable increases in oxidative stress, for example. Emotional stress can also increase the levels of cytokines, which are proteins that help control inflammation. Cytokines can also lead to the formation of reactive oxygen species, creating a vicious cycle of oxidative stress and the production of even more ROS.

Excessive exercise

While regular moderate-intensity exercise can reduce oxidative stress, overly strenuous or prolonged exercise can cause oxidative stress. Overdoing it can cause muscle damage, which triggers physiological changes that increase the production of free radicals.

How Do You Get Rid of Free Radicals in Your Body?

Your body produces free radicals naturally, and they play important roles in human health, so you’ll never get rid of them completely. However, you can reduce oxidative stress and decrease its harmful effects.

Eat foods that improve oxidative stress

Some foods can improve oxidative stress by introducing antioxidants into the body. These antioxidants are included in foods such as:

  • Vitamin C – oranges, broccoli, bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes
  • Vitamin E – peanuts, avocado, spinach, red peppers
  • Carotenoids (gives fruits and vegetables their color) – carrots, tomatoes, beets, cantaloupe
  • Selenium – shellfish, Brazil nuts, beef, brown rice, barley
  • Zinc – beef, poultry, fortified cereals, pumpkin seeds
  • Phenolic compounds – apples, tea, wine, berries

Take vitamins

Vitamins A, C, and E work as antioxidants to reduce oxidation and the development of free radicals. Vitamin B12 and red light therapy work together to reduce oxidative stress.

Take a walk

While excessive exercise causes oxidative stress, walking can reduce it. Research shows that regular, low-impact exercise, such as walking, reduces inflammation and oxidative stress.

Undergo red light therapy

Red light therapy can reduce oxidative stress. This advanced technology uses specific wavelengths of red and near-infrared light that promote the production, transport, and storage of ATP, which cells use as energy. Supporting ATP in this way boosts the body’s natural healing cycle in ways that reduce inflammation and promote healing in damaged tissue. Red light therapy also helps your muscles recover from exercise and can promote health and well-being in other ways that reduce oxidative stress.

For more information on the hidden causes of oxidative stress, consult with a healthcare professional. A nutritionist may help you craft a personalized diet plan that reduces free radicals and boosts your antioxidant intake. You may also benefit from learning more about how red light therapy reduces oxidative stress with comfortable, noninvasive, safe, and effective treatments.

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