If you have pain or aches in your joints, tendons or muscles that varies in intensity but never seems to go away, you might be experiencing oxidative stress to these areas. Oxidative stress is the cumulative effects of oxidation, a chemical reaction where electrons are stripped off tissues by reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS or free radicals are atoms or group of atoms that have one or more unpaired electrons. When an atom or molecule has an unpaired electron, it is unstable, and since nature likes stability the radical will seek out electrons elsewhere to “balance” itself. Free radicals are highly reactive to molecules they come in contact with and are therefore dangerous to them. They can destroy them or change their shape and therefore function by altering their molecular structure.
Radicals can have positive, negative or neutral charge. They are formed as intermediates in normal biochemical reactions in cells (cell metabolism), but when generated in excess or not appropriately controlled/ neutralized, radicals can damage adjacent cell structures and tissues. ROS types includes superoxide anion (O2-), hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and the hydroxide ion (OH-). Think of these things as the cell’s equivalent of noxious exhaust gases generated by an internal combustion engine.
Now, imagine a bunch of these free radicals roaming inside your knees. It’s akin to termites eating away at the frame of your home. At some point, a structural failure will occur; and in the case of the knees, damage to cartilage or synovium (joint inner lining) followed by knee pain and stiffness.
Your body also makes and uses reactive oxygen species for good things. White blood cells generate them to kill bacteria and other pathogens. ROS also influence cell signaling (such as signals to divide, increase membrane permeability and repair membranes) and activate (up-regulate) genes to produce needed substances during certain times. Only when they get to unacceptably high levels, and/or when they aren’t adequately neutralized do ROS become harmful.
Some of the scenarios that can cause excessive ROS formation include:
- Hypoxia (low oxygen levels), hyperoxia (high oxygen levels) and excess heat exposure
- Ionizing radiation — UV rays, gamma rays trigger massive ROS formation
- Prolonged, physical exertion— marathon running, extreme races, hard labor under grueling conditions generates massive amounts of ROS. Oxygen consumption increases by multiples, generating large amounts of free radicals and making it difficult for cellular anti-oxidant defenses to keep up.
- Pollution ingestion. This includes smoking, chemical fumes, carbon monoxide, organophosphate pesticides and other substances toxic to humans.
- Electromagnetic field exposure. Some studies suggest EMF can cause biological changes that result in excessive free radical formation.
Anti-Oxidants to the Rescue
Anti-oxidants are substances that act as reducing agents, where they donate an electron to a reactive oxygen species; thereby neutralizing it.
There are two main categories- enzymatic anti-oxidants and non-enzymatic anti-oxidants.
Enzymatic anti-oxidants include glutathione peroxidase, superoxide dismutase and catalase. Basically, these components are inside or adjacent to cells (water soluble) and degrade superoxide and hydrogen peroxide by-products of cell metabolism.
Non-enzymatic anti-oxidants include Vitamins A, E, and C, and glutathione. Vitamin E is the major fat soluble anti-oxidant that is responsible for degrading hydrogen peroxide radicals that form along lipid based cell membranes. Glutathione is an important anti-oxidant present in the cell cytoplasm that attracts free radicals, becomes radical itself but then recycles into an anti-oxidant via a special pathway and scavenges again for more free radicals.
Polyphenols, of which there are thousands, are substances (phytochemicals) found in plants that have anti-oxidant properties. This includes blueberries, pomegranate, citrus, green vegetables, apples, cantaloupe, cherries, grapes, plums and other dark and colorful plants. Tannins, quercetin and flavonoids are types of polyphenols.
The Bad News
So, at this point you might be thinking that fixing the oxidative stress problem is simple– just take a bunch of anti-oxidant supplements every day, and good bye free radicals, right?
Unfortunately, most of the research done to test this is inconclusive. This means that, at the present, we cannot say that taking anti-oxidant supplements reduces the risk for any type of disease.
While it’s true that people who eat lots of vegetables and fruits in their diet tend to be healthier than those that do not, the causative factor may be something other than anti-oxidant content in the fruits and vegetables. It could be that people who eat more vegetables and fruit are more health conscious overall and take better care of themselves in other ways (avoid smoking, drinking in moderation, avoiding junk food, etc.) that might explain their longevity.
And for some people, anti-oxidants can act as anti-nutrients by binding with essential minerals in the digestive tract such as iron and zinc, preventing them from being absorbed. They may also interfere with post-exercise trauma repair to muscles, as white blood cells use ROS during repair of muscle tissue; anti-oxidants may inhibit this.
So what is the solution if you’re being constantly attacked by reactive oxygen species?
The solution is to do what you need to do anyways in order to be healthy in the long-term:
- eat in moderation (less food to metabolize means less free radical generation)
- make at least 80% of your diet naturally occurring foods emphasizing green vegetables and to a lesser extent colorful fruits
- avoid sugary drinks
- exercise in moderation regularly
- avoid chronic cardio exercises such as long-distance running and ultra-workouts
- get adequate rest
- remove stress in your life (or find a counter to your stress)
Secondly, be aware of the exogenous sources of ROS generation and avoid them as best you can. This means:
- avoiding environmental pollution in the air, water and food
- staying away from second-hand smoke
- minimize your exposure to electromagnetic fields especially when you sleep;
- minimizing exposure to strong, mid-day sun rays
- If you work near an X-ray machine or other radiation source, make sure to wear adequate protection
Lastly, avoid binge eating and gorging on food, especially on an empty stomach! This stresses your digestive system and generates a barrage of free radicals over several hours as your digestive cells stay fired up to metabolize all that food. Those free radicals that weren’t zapped by glutathione and other anti-oxidant defenses roam throughout your body, snatching electrons from cell membranes, DNA, proteins and other important structures. Keep those buggers down; don’t stir up the ant nest.
When you turn off oxidative stress in your body, your body will be able to heal itself faster and those achy muscles and joints will actually start to feel better and stay that way.