5 unexpected causes of oxidative stress

The classic signs of inflammation (think redness, heat, swelling, pain) are all a part of the body’s clever response to injury and infection. But inflammation can also take place deep within your body, and you may be contributing to it in the most unexpected ways.

Lady running up stairs outside

Inflammation vs oxidative stress

Within each cell, around a billion biochemical reactions take place each second. These cellular reactions produce waste products called free radicals, which can cause damage to our cells if they are not neutralized by antioxidants. When the amount of antioxidants in the body is not high enough to counteract the damaging effect of free radicals, the body can enter a state of oxidative stress. If oxidative stress is ongoing or prolonged, it can trigger inflammation.

There are many ways to mitigate oxidative stress – like taking MitoQ, to boost your own supply of antioxidants – but it also helps to address the contributing factors that may be playing out in your life daily.

5 unexpected causes of oxidative stress

Cell stress

Your body is made up of over 37 trillion cells that help you live, breathe and function. Inside almost every one of your cells are tiny organelles called mitochondria, which produce their own energy. As a by-product of producing energy for you to function, mitochondria create free radicals – which are the main cause of oxidative stress in the body. Once this happens, your cells spend less precious time and energy doing all those important jobs your body requires, and more time engaging a cell stress response to fight free radical damage.

Your mitochondria are clever though – it's not for nothing they're called the powerhouse of the cell! They self-manage free radical build-up by producing antioxidants, which stabilize free radicals and reduce the likelihood of inflammation.

But the problem is, your body's antioxidant levels begin to naturally decline as you age – leaving free radicals 'free' to wreak havoc within your body. Additionally, our day-to-day lives expose us to even more free radicals through stressors such as pollution, UV radiation, poor diet, lack of (or too much!) exercise, too little sleep, smoking, life stress and drinking alcohol – making the battle against them that much harder.

Chronic stress

The fight-or-flight response is no joke. If you’re repeatedly exposed to events or emotions that activate your stress response, your whole body is impacted – including your cells. This fight-or-flight response can be triggered any time you experience something that you perceive to be stressful, from a work deadline to a flat tire. The stress response was wired to be a short-term, adaptive response that helped our ancestors navigate their more hostile world, but the constant stressors we’re exposed to today mean that people are activated often, day in and day out.

In these situations, your body basically shuts down the body systems that aren’t required for your immediate survival. Numerous studies have indicated the damaging physiological effects that ongoing psychological stress has on cells. From ramping up the production of stress hormones to increasing chemical messengers that upregulate inflammatory pathways – the invisible load that your cells carry when you experience ongoing psychological stress is immense.

The fight or flight response increases the demands of your body and places a heavy burden on mitochondria to generate more energy. If you’re constantly in a state of fight or flight, your mitochondria will struggle to meet these increased energy demands – which of course, impacts your ability to feel energized.


There’s no denying that high-intensity exercise comes with a laundry list of health benefits, but it’s all about context. The cortisol-inducing effects of high-intensity exercise are what makes this form of movement so effective, but it’s also what can create oxidative stress, especially if your body isn’t adapted to this kind of movement. Don’t worry, this doesn't mean you need to say good-bye to your daily HIIT workouts. But if you’re exposed to a lot of stress in other areas of your life and you’re not properly supporting recovery, these intensive workouts could be doing more harm than good.

Long periods of exhaustive exercise can increase oxidative stress – particularly when there is not enough rest between them. It’s important to make sure you’re balancing your training sessions with low-intensity forms of movement and plenty of rest days to help manage oxidative stress. You could also think about increasing your antioxidant intake to mitigate the production of free radicals from high-intensity exercise.

Imbalanced blood sugar

Studies show that when blood sugar spikes, a cascade of events takes place that leads to an increased amount of free radicals within our cells.

The rise and fall of glucose can also trigger the stress response – which impacts your mighty mitochondria. When the body’s stress response is triggered by low or high levels of blood sugar, it increases the demands of your body and puts pressure on mitochondria to generate more energy.

Mitochondria are responsible for turning glucose into energy, but when the blood is overwhelmed with too much glucose – mitochondria are unable to produce energy efficiently. When mitochondria are over-worked, we are exposed to more free radicals which can lead to oxidative stress over time.

Blood sugar spikes can also accelerate a process called glycation, which is a natural process that occurs when glucose binds to protein and fat in the body. This process creates ‘advanced glycation end products’ (AGEs) which can significantly impact metabolic health and aging by increasing oxidative stress. AGEs are damaging to collagen and elastin, two important proteins that support bouncy, youthful skin – and they also interfere with the normal function of cells. Research shows that the more our blood sugar spikes, the more the process of glycation is triggered – which causes oxidative stress.

Your social environment

In addition to the usual culprits that contribute to stress in your everyday life (think psychological stress, poor diet, work or financial pressures, and all of the above), your social environment plays a crucial role in your emotional health. It’s not only about what you eat or put inside your body that impacts your health – it's also about the quality of your thoughts, and who you surround yourself.

Whatever we expose ourselves to (or don’t expose ourselves to) has the power to influence our brain and body on a cellular level. As humans, we are built to thrive on connection – and not surprisingly, social isolation has been linked to negative health outcomes. Animal studies show that social disconnection plays a role in oxidative stress in many different ways – from altering the expression of genes to depleting the body’s master antioxidant, glutathione. The brain itself consumes a high amount of oxygen, making it susceptible to the damage caused by oxidative stress.

In one animal study, researchers measured a significant increase in oxidative reactions in mice that were subjected to the stress of social isolation for 6-8 weeks. The same study found that the longer the period of social isolation, the more extreme the oxidative stress and the antioxidant depletion. While we’re living in a time when we are more connected than ever, research shows that many of us have never felt so isolated. Reducing negative self-talk, saying ‘yes’ more often, and being present with others can help you improve your social connections and in turn, support your wellbeing overall.

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