Oxidation is the process by which electrons are lost during a chemical reaction – when a cut apple browns or metal rusts, oxidation is at work. Oxidation happens constantly throughout our body; oxidative stress occurs when there’s an imbalance of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and antioxidants. (If you’ve ever heard the term “free radical,” a reactive oxygen species is one of those – with oxygen in it.) Injury, inflammation, insufficient diet, disease, and environmental toxins – such as heavy metals and certain drugs – can all result in excessive levels of ROS, oxidative stress, and damage to the body.
ROS aren’t inherently bad – they’re a natural byproduct of cell metabolism (normal) and exercise (good for you) – however, ROS are unstable particles capable of reacting with and damaging cell structures. In fact, our immune system produces ROS as a strategy to destroy pathogens. Our bodies have natural antioxidants that buffer ROS levels, thereby preventing undesirable ROS damage. Dysfunction can occur when antioxidant levels are not sufficiently balanced out ROS levels. An imbalance can be due to increased ROS production, decreased antioxidant production, or a combination of the two. This imbalance between ROS and antioxidants results in oxidative stress – a condition that can impact brain health, impair cognitive function, and damage structures throughout the body.