What are the symptoms and markers of oxidative stress?
Ever tried deliberately not breathing out after taking a breath? It can be very uncomfortable when tissues and organs don’t get their supply of oxygen. The addition of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere allowed life to happen, and without it, nothing would exist. Through the process of oxidation, free radicals are formed that normally get neutralised in the body. When these free radicals are not cancelled out by anti-oxidants, an imbalance occurs, and this imbalance causes the phenomenon known as oxidative stress. This stress factor causes skin and hair ageing. It may also do damage to the building block of life, DNA, which leads to gene mutations and subsequent tissue and organ changes.
Health magazines and health-conscious people throw around the term “anti-oxidant”, because eating anti-oxidant rich food can help, but sometimes it’s not enough. When toxins, pollution, stress, and ultraviolet radiation bear down on the body, it may be wise to supplement with natural anti-oxidants. Why is it important to worry about oxidative stress, and what are the consequences of ignoring it?
What makes free radicals dangerous?
Atoms are surrounded by a cloud of electrons that are arranged in tiered levels. If an atom is missing one electron in its outer tier, this makes it slightly unstable (free radical). To regain stability, the molecules quickly react with other substances. If there are too many of these free radicals that do not get neutralised, a process called oxidative stress happens.
The oxygen molecule is often involved in forming free radicals, and there is a special term for such compounds - reactive oxygen species (ROS). An increase in ROS production has been shown to have harmful effects on vital cellular structures like proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids. Importantly, nucleic acids are at the heart of DNA, the blueprint of life, and any damage done to this molecule can be destructive to many biological and physiological processes.
Scientists have exhaustingly evaluated oxidative stress, and have found a connection with the onset and/or progression of diseases like cancer, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s), cardiovascular diseases, skin ageing (loss of elasticity, appearance of wrinkles), and hair ageing (greying, alopecia).
What causes oxidative stress?
Remember, free radical formation is normal. What is pathological however, is the imbalance between this relative evil and the valiant anti-oxidants. Free radicals can be produced as a result of internal and external factors.
The following internal mechanisms are responsible for free radical formation:
- Ischemia (shortage of oxygen in heart muscle)
- Immune system activation
- Excessive physical and mental stressors
- Normal ageing
External factors include, but are not limited to:
- Environmental pollution and toxins
- Cigarette smoke
- Alcohol consumption
- Ultraviolet radiation
- Heavy metal exposure
- Certain medications
Oxidative stress causes grey hair
Normal hair colour is first and foremost dependent on the production of melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives hair the incredible variety of hair colors and tints. It is also responsible for skin colour, and the varying racial differences present in the world.
Melanin is produced in pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. It is known that deficiencies in enzymes, vitamins and minerals can lead to early greying and/or hair ageing.
As we age, our anti-oxidant defence systems become weaker, and are further weakened by exposure to the external factors above. Hair follicles also accumulate free radicals and may trigger the process of oxidative stress.
For the first time, scientists have proven that hydrogen peroxide induced oxidative stress has a paramount effect on the appearance and severity of grey hair. They showed that free radical damage is not limited to the melanocytes themselves, but also includes the hair shaft and entire hair follicle. In the next section, this will tie in with the second sign of oxidative stress - hair loss.
Oxidative stress and hair loss
Hair loss, or alopecia, can affect anyone at any age. The mechanisms and causes of hair loss are well-known - genetics, underlying medical conditions, certain medications, and lack of adequate nutrients intake all play a role in premature and age-related hair loss. New evidence shows that oxidative stress may also trigger early hair loss.
A recent study analysing patients suffering from premature hair loss found a strong correlation between increased oxidative stress and early-onset androgenetic alopecia (pattern hair loss).
What this means is exposure to oxidative stressors may quicken the manifestation of a condition previously associated with purely genetics. The researchers proposed applying topical or taking supplemental anti-oxidants as a way to fight the free radical damage.
Oxidative stress induces skin ageing
As already discussed, certain factors promote oxidative stress, and by proxy, skin ageing. For example sun tanning (sunlight or sunbeds), active/passive smoking, an unbalanced diet, and alcohol misuse all contribute to increases in free radicals. The latter dehydrates the body, hence the skin will also lose moisture. At the surface of the body the skin is always at threat of losing moisture and becoming dry. A good supply of water is essential for a healthy functioning of the skin and especially its top layer, the stratum corneum, which plays the main part in preventing water loss.
Sunscreens are an important defence line for the skin from UV radiation (UVA and UVB). A 2013 controlled trial showed that regular application of sunscreen by people younger than 55 years for 4.5 years significantly delayed skin ageing.
On the molecular level it is mostly oxidative stress, caused by free radicals that is driving skin ageing. Evidence from many studies also points to the link between oxidative stress and skin cancer. Oxidative stress impairs the skin’s ability to fend off free radicals, and through DNA mutation, it can potentially cause cancer.
Besides adapting one’s habits to be more “skin-friendly”, supplements that aim to prevent oxidative stress, like DRM4®, help skin cope with free radical load.
Foods that are rich in anti-oxidants include berries, fruits in general, vegetables, nuts, fish, and green tea, among others. There is no single anti-oxidant that can counter the effects of free radicals - different anti-oxidants act on different free radicals. This means that to get be fully protected, one needs to eat a varied, balanced diet, and as an additional means of defence, take supplements that are formulated to prevent hair and skin from ageing.