When it comes to chronic illnesses and health concerns, a functional medicine-based approach means taking a look at the underlying causes instead of just treating the symptoms. By understanding our health holistically, we can live healthier and happier lives in every aspect.

So what can be an underlying cause of many illnesses? One example is oxidative stress.

What is oxidative stress?

Oxidative stress is an imbalance within our bodies. Put simply, oxidative stress occurs when free radicals overwhelm antioxidants. We’ve written about the relationship between free radicals and antioxidants before, but here’s a quick primer:

Free radicals are oxygen molecules that are unstable because they’re lacking an electron in their outer shell. When free radicals are in our system, they seek out molecules with more of those electrons and try to “steal” them. When a free radical takes that extra electron, it can stabilize itself but it will destabilize the other molecule in the process—transforming it into a free radical. This cycle of drama happening internally can damage our cells, tissue, proteins, and DNA.

This is where antioxidants become so crucial. Antioxidants are able to provide those free-wheeling free radicals with one of their electrons, without destabilizing and becoming free radicals themselves.

Where do free radicals even come from?

Some amount of free radicals in your system is normal and even necessary. Free radicals are produced during metabolism or when we exercise, and are also a natural factor in our immune system response to invaders. When there is too much free radical presence in our systems without enough antioxidants to keep up, oxidative stress occurs.

What causes that imbalance though that leads to oxidative stress?

Factors in your diet, lifestyle, or environment can throw your system out of balance by producing more free radicals or decreasing antioxidant levels. Some of the most common factors include:

  • Eating too many processed foods, refined sugars, or refined carbohydrates
  • Being exposed to pesticides or toxins
  • Living with chronic and/or high stress
  • Not getting enough exercise
  • Smoking cigarettes or other nicotine products
  • Taking certain medications
  • Drinking excess amounts of alcohol
  • Not sleeping enough, or not getting enough quality sleep

Can oxidative stress be prevented?

Not all the factors listed above are possible to completely avoid, but we can practice making many choices when it comes to our diets, lifestyles, habits, and environments to help maintain balance when it comes to our free radicals and antioxidants.

  1. Eat a balanced, organic dietMake sure you’re getting lots of whole foods—especially vegetables and fruits—instead of processed ones. Eat lots of antioxidant-filled foods, like berries, dark leafy greens, carrots, green tea, cinnamon, or turmeric. Replace any inflammatory omega-6 veggie oils, like canola or peanut oil, with extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil. Fill your diet with anti-inflammatory foods, like avocado, nuts, seeds, and olives. Whenever it’s possible, opt for produce and animal products that are organic. This will reduce your potential exposure to pesticides and toxins. Make sure your drinking water is filtered, as well.
  2. Get some restBetter said than done, of course! But a healthy circadian rhythm or sleep cycle can go a long way towards preventing oxidative stress. Try to avoid screens for 1-2 hours before your bedtime, maintain a consistent sleep schedule, and use meditation or journaling to reduce stress in the evening.

    Rest isn’t just for sleep though. Make sure to instill rest into your lifestyle by practicing mindfulness techniques, like yoga, stretching, or taking long walks outside.

  3. Cut out the cigarettes and alcohol Now’s a great time to finally kick that smoking habit for good, if you have one. Work with your medical practitioner to find a technique that works best for you.

    When it comes to alcohol, everything in moderation can be okay for most people. But excess drinking can wreak havoc. If, like many Americans, you’ve increased the amount of alcohol you consume during the COVID-19 pandemic, consider reevaluating your habits and replacing some of your drinks with a healthier alternative—like fresh juice, tea, or kombucha.