Many of us assume that we’re doing everything right when it comes to helping immunity and reducing our chances of getting sick; we wash our hands with antibacterial soap, take vitamin C supplements, avoid being around people who are sick, and try to get plenty of rest each night.
However, our immune systems are influenced by more than just these external factors. The reality is that the level of oxidative stress in our bodies plays a major role in determining our immune responses. You might be wondering how something you’ve never heard of before can play such a major role in your health, but it has been shown to have a positive correlation in the link between oxidative stress and immunity.
What is oxidative stress?
During normal metabolic and cellular processes, the cells of the body produce both free radicals, (for example, reactive oxygen species, superoxide dismutase), and antioxidant enzymes. The balance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body help to manage oxidative stress. Oxidative stress occurs when the balance between free radicals and antioxidants tips towards the side of free radicals.
What are free radicals?
To better understand the issues surrounding oxidative stress, it is important to identify the roles of antioxidants and free radicals in the body. Free radicals are substances that are produced as a waste product of cellular reactions; specifically, free radicals are produced during the process of cellular respiration, which is the cell’s energy production process. During the process of cellular respiration, the mitochondria of the cell (which serve as internal “power plants”) convert the oxygen we breathe and food we eat into energy for cells, organs, and tissues to function. However, cellular respiration also causes the production of free radicals, which generally consist of an oxygen or nitrogen atom with an unpaired electron in their outer shell. Free radicals are known to be particularly unstable because they are missing an electron, so they try to act quickly to “steal” electrons from nearby molecules. When this occurs, the molecular structure of the nearby molecule is compromised and damaged, which can impact everything from fat to proteins and even DNA. Types of free radicals include superoxide, hydroxyl radical, and nitric oxide radical.
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are substances that help to support the health of cells and manage free radicals. Antioxidants perform an internal “scavenger hunt” inside the body as they seek out free radicals that need to add a missing electron. When antioxidants sync up with free radicals, they turn the free radical into a stable atom, within the cell. Some antioxidants are produced by plants and are considered a phytonutrient, or plant-based nutrient. Our bodies take in these antioxidants when we consume fruits and vegetables. Other antioxidants, known as endogenous antioxidants, are produced by the body. Antioxidants that most people are familiar with include substances like Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, selenium, manganese and zeaxanthin. In general, foods that are richly and brightly colored, such as blueberries, spinach, and broccoli, are found to be high in antioxidants.
What effects can oxidative stress cause in the body?
Oxidative stress can cause a variety of effects on the body, but not all of them are negative. For example, oxidative stress can occur during exercise or physical activity when the body increases the production of free radicals. This temporary oxidative stress helps to regulate tissue growth and also increases antioxidant capacity. However, where oxidative stress can become a problem is if it occurs over a long period of time or at high levels.
What is the immune system?
You may already be familiar with the immune system, which is one of the major components of the body. The immune system plays one of the most important roles in our body day to day by acting as our natural defense mechanism, protecting us from many different types of external aggressors. The immune system can be compared to a castle; when the castle walls are strong, no invading forces can enter the castle and the residents are kept safe. The same is true for people with strong immune systems. However, when the walls of the castle are attacked, they may become damaged over time and weaken, eventually allowing in the invaders. The immune system consists of many different components, including white blood cells, leukocytes, T cells, antibodies, the lymphatic system, spleen, bone marrow, and thymus, and it is also aided by “good” bacteria inside our bodies called probiotics.
How is immunity influenced by oxidative stress?
At first glance, it may not seem like there is much of a link between immunity and oxidative stress. However, oxidative stress can trigger an immune response. Why exactly does this occur? The answer comes back to the structure of our cells. In high school biology, you no doubt heard repeatedly that the “mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell.” You may not know what mitochondria are, but you know they’re the powerhouse, right? Mitochondria are responsible for giving our cells, and therefore our bodies, energy to function. In addition to serving as the powerhouse of the cell, mitochondria are also responsible for helping to power the immune system; so, the strength of the immune system is linked to the health of the body’s mitochondria. Mitochondria are responsible for helping to regulate the body’s immune response, and white blood cells like monocytes, which are one of the most important components of the immune system, require a reliable mitochondrial network in order to do their jobs. As we age over time, oxidative stress can increase and the body’s immune system can be compromised.
Who is at risk of experiencing oxidative stress?
It is inevitable that all of us will experience some degree of oxidative stress as we age, as mitochondrial health is known to often decline with age. One of the body’s most important antioxidant defenses, CoQ10, can be produced in diminishing quantities as we age, leaving free radicals less well managed. Therefore, older adults can have an increased risk of experiencing oxidative stress. While age is something that is out of our control, other lifestyle factors that contribute to oxidative stress are not. Eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep and exercise can all support mitochondrial health. Factors that are known to increase a person’s risk of experiencing long-term oxidative stress include obesity, unhealthy diets (specifically those high in fat, sugar, and processed foods), radiation exposure, smoking cigarettes or using tobacco byproducts, excess alcohol consumption, some medications, pollution and exposure to environmental toxins.
Can oxidative stress be minimized?
Oxidative stress may sound scary, especially when you consider the implications of long term oxidative stress response on your immune system. However, the good news is that many sources of oxidative stress can be minimized. While we can’t stop the aging process, there are some ways to help control the likelihood of experiencing oxidative stress in the body, including:
- Exercising regularly
- Quitting the use of cigarettes and other tobacco products
- Reducing stress
- Limiting the intake of foods that are high in fat or sugar, as well as limiting the intake of processed foods
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Reducing or eliminating exposure to environmental toxins.
How can mitochondrial health be improved?
While there’s no substitute for living a healthy lifestyle and making smart choices, oxidative stress can also be minimized and reduced by adding a nutritional supplement with CoQ10, the antioxidant that helps the mitochondria manage oxidative stress. Supplementing the body’s natural antioxidant system with CoQ10 can help support mitochondrial health and immune system function. However, not all CoQ10 supplements are created equal. Because mitochondria have a protective double membrane, regular CoQ10 supplements aren’t able to effectively penetrate.
However, a formula developed by scientists in New Zealand, called MitoQ, is a special form of CoQ10 that has been made smaller and given a positive charge in order for it to breach the mitochondrial membrane and be absorbed into the mitochondria at significant levels. The highly absorbable formula of MitoQ means that people can use ten times less than the normal CoQ10 concentrations and still receive major support for their mitochondrial health and, by proxy, their immunity.