The 'Cause' of Many Diseases May Have Been Misunderstood

Oxidation has a terrible reputation. Numerous research papers link it with inflammation, aging, and chronic diseases.
The 'Cause' of Many Diseases May Have Been Misunderstood
Marina Zhang

Oxidation has a terrible reputation. Numerous research papers link it with inflammation, aging, and chronic diseases.

However, the fear of oxidation may not be fully warranted.

The Primary Source of ROS

Let's talk a little about chemistry.

Oxidation occurs when oxidants—also called reactive oxygen species (ROS)—steal electrons from other molecules.

Oxidation occurs everywhere and every day; it's the browning of sliced apples left out, the rusting of iron pipes, and also the daily activity of your mitochondria.

Mitochondria, the powerhouse of our cells, are also the body's primary producers of ROS. When mitochondria are producing energy, these oxidants are formed as byproducts.

Your body naturally and constantly balances against this process.

Cells make antioxidants to address the amount of oxidants being produced.

"There's a nice balance; the cells have figured that piece out," chiropractor and functional medicine practitioner Dr. Eric Balcavage told The Epoch Times.

You only need to be worried when the balance is out of whack.

Excessive oxidation, or oxidative stress, can damage cells and tissues. Oxidants may steal electrons from DNA and organelles, making them unstable. The latter then restabilize themselves by stealing electrons from other places, triggering a cascade of damage throughout the cell.

Injuries, infections, and chronic diseases are often linked with periods of oxidative stress, and some studies suggest that oxidative stress is the cause of the damage.

ROS Could Be Necessary and Protective

However, the common notion of oxidative stress might be a misunderstanding. The cell's tendency to go into oxidative stress is actually "not a bad thing when done at the right time and place," said Dr. Robert Naviaux, a professor of medicine specializing in mitochondrial disease and genetics at the University of California–San Diego.

ROS production is a necessary and highly coordinated reaction to infection and toxins.

Cells have a whole host of genes associated with ROS, Dr. Naviaux told The Epoch Times. During infections from pathogens, ROS are released as a signal and weapon.

Pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites steal or divert the cell's electrons and fuel for their own use. Mitochondria respond by reducing energy production and increasing oxidative stress to deter invaders.

Immune cells release ROS to eliminate forthcoming pathogens and break down pathogens and infected cells. T cells, which form the final line of defense, use hydrogen peroxide—also an oxidant—to punch holes in infected cells and bacteria.

But constantly being in a state of oxidative stress isn't healthy for the body, either, and neither is the long-term discomfort it causes.

On the other hand, people who can't generate ROS can have disastrous health outcomes.

The most damaging pro-inflammatory disorder currently known is chronic granulomatous disease, according to Dr. Naviaux. Children with this disease are genetically unable to make superoxide, a class of ROS.

"The body's reaction to this [deficiency] is an intensified inflammation that is so bad that [patients] can have severe, erosive sinus infections [that] can erode cartilage in their nose," he said.

Oxidation to Cope With Disease

Oxidative stress may also be a sign of the body trying to adapt to chronic disease the best way that it can.

One example is the increase in oxidation to adjust to nutritional excess, otherwise known as overeating—the driver of Type 2 diabetes.

Research has shown that in people with Type 2 diabetes, the body becomes less inclined to use oxygen to break down glucose, thus producing less energy. The oxygen in the cells is converted to oxidants and exported from the cell for disuse.

Since aerobic respiration, which uses oxygen to create energy, occurs under normal health conditions, many researchers consider a decline in such respiration to be a sign of mitochondrial dysfunction.

However, an alternative explanation is that this shift is deliberate and may be the body's best way to handle nutrition and energy excess, according to Dr. Naviaux.

Nevertheless, this metabolic shift can become a chronic problem because, over time, the body reduces its demand for oxygen. This leads to fewer blood vessels and tissues becoming chronically deprived of oxygen, which can manifest as peripheral vascular disease, ischemia, loss of organ function, and heart failure.

Other adaptations have been observed in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

"People with COPD are very uncomfortable doing exercise because they can't breathe very well. So what ends up happening is these individuals end up being very inactive and sedentary," professor Martin Picard, who specializes in mitochondrial research at Columbia University, told The Epoch Times.

He noticed that in COPD patients, mitochondrial volume is reduced, and oxidation is increased due to reduced demand for energy. However, the energy produced from individual mitochondria isn't much different from that of a healthy person.

Oxidative Stress Is What Makes Exercise Beneficial

Oxidation is necessary in other ways, too.

Oxidation is what builds muscle endurance and energy efficiency after exercise. Taking antioxidants to combat oxidative stress may actually offset the benefits of exercise.

This was demonstrated in a 2009 German study by medical researcher Michael Ristow, who is renowned in the field of mitochondria and longevity.

Forty men were recruited to go on a four-week training regimen. Half were also prescribed antioxidant supplements, including vitamins C and E, while the other half weren't given anything.

At the end of the study period, researchers found that the men who exercised but didn't take antioxidant supplements had improved biomarkers in insulin sensitivity and mitochondrial biogenesis. A reduced effect was seen in the men who took antioxidants.

The authors proposed that ROS during low and moderate exercise were beneficial stressors to the mitochondria, allowing them to adapt to the stress. Antioxidants, on the other hand, neutralize beneficial stress.

Antioxidants: Good or Bad?

While antioxidants may be beneficial for short-term treatment, such as using vitamin C to manage an acute infection or using glutathione to treat liver toxicity due to an acetaminophen overdose, their long-term benefits have yet to be established.

Dr. Naviaux has observed that there's an assumption in medicine that interventions that work in acute disease will also work for chronic diseases. However, he said such diseases require very different treatments.

"This is the difference between what I called the 'First Book of Medicine' for the treatment of acute illness and injuries and the 'Second Book of Medicine' for the treatment of complex chronic diseases," he said.

Some antioxidants are very complex molecules, and, depending on their interactions in the body, they can behave both as antioxidants and pro-oxidants.

Sulforaphane is a phytonutrient from cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli that increases the cell's antioxidant reserve by first depleting antioxidants in the cell. Curcumin, for example, can both donate electrons (antioxidizing) or steal electrons (pro-oxidizing) due to having phenol groups in its structure.

When a molecule gains electrons, another must lose them.

"It is more about the dynamic interaction and not any short-term 'snapshot' that determines the long-term benefit," Dr. Naviaux said.

Marina Zhang is a health writer for The Epoch Times, based in New York. She mainly covers stories on COVID-19 and the healthcare system and has a bachelors in biomedicine from The University of Melbourne. Contact her at [email protected].