What Is Oxidative Stress?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on April 27, 2023
4 min read

‌Oxidative stress is a bodily condition that happens when your antioxidant levels are low. These levels can be measured through your blood plasma.

When there is an imbalance of reactive oxygen species, also known as free radicals, and antioxidant defenses, your body experiences oxidative stress. This imbalance can play a role in certain illnesses and conditions like diabetes. 

Oxidative stress can lead to cell and tissue breakdown. However, there may be some benefits of this imbalance. In some studies, oxidative stress has been shown to help combat certain conditions like cancer

‌Oxidative stress is largely seen to harm your overall health. However, there can be some uses of this imbalance. Some research has shown that oxidative stress may play a role in certain diseases associated with people’s daily habits. Measuring oxidant and antioxidant levels in the body can help researchers know how these levels impact particular diseases. Genetic makeup is also factored in. 

Oxidative stress has more harmful properties than helpful ones. It can break down cell tissue and cause DNA damage. This damage can also result in inflammation. These factors can lead to lifelong diseases like diabetes or cancer, in some cases. 

While the problem lies in having extremely low levels of antioxidants, simply supplementing antioxidants does not fully treat the issue. That’s why oxidative stress is a complex imbalance that affects many pieces of your overall health. 

Antioxidants play an important role in your body. They protect your body from free radicals, which become more prevalent through oxidative stress. In turn, they can help protect cells from damage. 

This huge role of antioxidants can be a factor in preventing or reducing the effects of heart disease, cancer, and other lifestyle diseases.

Naturally occurring antioxidants are found in vitamins C and E, carotenoids, flavonoids, and tannins. These sources include fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and spices. Antioxidants can also be found in cocoa, tea, and coffee. 

‌Because free radicals tear down your cell tissue, oxidative stress can have lasting impacts. Some chronic disorders that have been linked to oxidative stress include the following: ‌

‌Below you’ll find more information on how oxidative stress affects long-term, lifestyle conditions. 

‌Oxidative stress can impact multiple aspects of your health. When there’s an imbalance in your body and free radicals exceed antioxidants, there can be lasting harmful effects. The following conditions have been linked to oxidative stress.

Hypertension. This condition is very common, and more than 50 million Americans experience systolic hypertension. Hypertension is high blood pressure, which increases your risk of other vascular diseases. Oxidative stress has been linked as a bridge between hypertension and atherosclerosis. When the enzyme oxidase, which prevents oxidative stress, is not activated, hypertension is more prevalent. 

Atherosclerosis. Oxidative stress can be a catalyst for atherosclerosis. That’s because when antioxidant levels are low and inflammation levels are high, especially within blood vessels, atheromatous plaque starts to form. This buildup and circulating low-density lipoproteins, or bad cholesterol, get oxidized by the free radicals. This leads to the creation of new cells and accumulation of lipids, which can cause plaque buildup and heart problems.

Heart Failure. Oxidative stress can cause chronic heart failure because of the reduced antioxidant levels. Antioxidants prevent certain conditions like cardiac hypertrophy, cardiac myocyte apoptosis, and myocardial stunning. These conditions lead to heart failure, and when they’re not slowed down they can have dangerous effects.

Stroke. Your risk of stroke is increased when your body is imbalanced. Studies have shown that oxidative stress can cause an ischemia-induced brain injury. This happens because DNA damage occurs along with protein oxidation. When you have fewer antioxidants, you’re more likely to have cerebral damage if you had a stroke. 

Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). Your CVD risk is greatly increased when your body has oxidative stress. Without the healing properties of antioxidants, factors such as hyperglycemia, obesity, smoking, an unbalanced diet, and stress can increase your CVD risk. Oxidative stress impacts your cholesterol levels, which can lead to plaque buildup and vascular disease.

Cancer. This condition happens when cellular and molecular alterations are triggered. Through oxidative stress, oxidative DNA damage can stimulate cancer growth in your body. 

‌Neurological disease. Oxidative stress has been linked to different neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, and memory loss. Oxidative stress causes damage that increases lost neurons and can speed up dementia progression. Free radicals have been shown to create toxic peptides that affect people with Alzheimer’s.

You can talk to your doctor about your free radicals and antioxidant levels in your body to see if you should start supplementing antioxidants.