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Antioxidant Stress: Too Much of a Good Thing?


By now, most of us are familiar with the concept of oxidative stress. Every day you hear more about the importance of antioxidants to help your body deal with this burden.

Even if you don’t know what oxidative stress is, you probably know that you should be eating antioxidants.

What if I told you that there is a dark side to antioxidants? That too many antioxidants can lead to something known as antioxidant stress.


What is antioxidant stress?

Antioxidant stress is what happens when you overdose on antioxidants. It’s easier than you’d think.

Many people are taking antioxidant supplements and eating foods that have high antioxidant content because they are worried about oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress happens when you have too many free radicals in your body and not enough antioxidants to neutralize them. These free radicals can cause damage to your cells, which over time turns into oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress has been tied to a wide range of serious health issues and has been talked about a lot in the media recently.

As with most things, though, trying to resolve one issue by going overboard with treatments or supplements leads to a new set of problems. Moderation is the key.

When you overdose on any one antioxidant (while trying to prevent oxidative stress) those antioxidants themselves become reactive (which is what we fear from free radicals).

Not only can these reactive antioxidants be harmful in and of themselves, but according to Scientific American, “high-dose antioxidant supplements can effectively “abolish the beneficial effects of exercise” (emphasis mine). Researchers think that high levels of a single antioxidant… can snatch up all the free radicals produced by exercise before they have a chance to trigger the synthesis of…beneficial endogenous antioxidants.”

In other words, your body makes a lot of antioxidants on its own and quite a number are created as a response to physical exertion. It’s just one of the ways that your body rewards you for working out.

It’s just one of the ways that your body rewards you for working out.

If you’re pumping individual antioxidants into your system with supplements they will donate electrons to the free radicals you’re making by exercising, which are what tell your body, “Hey, Body! Make some antioxidants!”  

The lesson: free radicals are not always a bad thing and can even be a good thing. Wiping them out en masse may not be in your best interest.

What causes antioxidant stress?

Obviously, too many antioxidants, but what does that mean?

The key here is to get a range of antioxidants from a variety of whole food sources and avoid single-antioxidant supplements (like vitamin C tablets, vitamin E capsules, beta-carotene pills, resveratrol caps, etc.).

Your body is designed to absorb a variety of different antioxidants that act as a “cascading buffer”; as one antioxidant loses an electron to a free radical, another donates to it and so on down the line.

If you’re over-full on just one, you’ll be missing the other ones needed for that buffer. Eating a varied diet ensures that that doesn’t happen.


What are the symptoms of antioxidant stress?

The symptoms can vary depending on what antioxidant is over-represented, but in many cases, the symptoms are the same as the symptoms of oxidative stress.

Dr. Doni outlines 7 common symptoms of oxidative stress on her blog:

  1. Fatigue
  2. Memory loss and/or brain fog
  3. Muscle and/or joint pain
  4. Wrinkles and grey hair
  5. Decreased eyesight
  6. Headaches and sensitivity to noise
  7. Susceptibility to infections

Based on this information, if you’re experiencing these symptoms and taking antioxidant supplements before you assume that you have oxidative stress, consider getting that antioxidant from a food source instead and see if that helps.

The long-term health problems associated with antioxidant stress are also often the same as those that can come from long-term oxidative stress. This is a real concern given how many common serious health problems have been linked with oxidation.

Does this mean I don’t need antioxidants?

No, but it does mean that you don’t need single antioxidant supplements (unless you have a deficiency that has been identified by your healthcare provider).

Vitamins and supplements can still be beneficial, but they should be food-based and not processed to the point that individual antioxidants are standing alone.

No matter what supplements you may be taking, this is no substitute for eating whole foods, with lots of fruits and vegetables.

How can I prevent and treat antioxidative stress?

Preventing antioxidant stress is easy. They key is to eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of antioxidant-rich foods.

Don’t focus on one or two antioxidant-rich foods at the exclusion of other healthy foods and avoid supplements that give you just one antioxidant isolated from its food source.

Examples of single-antioxidant supplements include selenium tablets, vitamin C powders, resveratrol supplements, vitamin E capsules, CoQ10 pills and beta-carotene supplements.

Vitamin C, resveratrol, vitamin E and beta-carotene can be found in citrus fruits, blueberries, spinach and mangoes respectively. Sounds like a pretty delicious salad to me.

Our marine phytoplankton product — Oceans Alive — is a whole food source that contains many secondary antioxidants (the ones your body can’t make) and actually encourages your body’s own production of primary antioxidants.

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