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Understanding stress requires knowledge about stress and free radicals. Stress creates free radicals which result in disease, making it vital for HSPs to know the relationship between antioxidants and free radicals.

Stress and free radicals harm each of us by diminishing our health and energy. Each one of us is a life force, and has a life force that needs to be healthy for us to be effective in the world. Stress is a tax on our system, which diminishes our life force unless we restore our vitality. That means that we need to regularly restore ourselves through sleep and other forms of self care.

We live in a cultural and economic system that it is designed for continuous growth and consumption. Continuous growth is a goal that does not adequately recognize the importance of renewal.  It is like a farmer who continually harvests food without attending to the rest of the food growing process. That is a sure recipe for disaster. The same is true for human beings. If we are constantly trying to “harvest” or extract from our bodies, at some point they will collapse. A lifestyle that plans for renewal is a necessity for all living systems and particularly for HSPs who need continual renewal in order to manage nervous system overload and maintain the quality of their work and daily functioning.

The Technical Side of Stress and Free Radicals

In the human biological system, free radicals are the agents of negative stress and depletion.

What is a free radical? A free radical is a structurally incomplete atom. Atoms have electrons on their outer shell that interact with other electrons of other atoms. A free radical has an odd rather than even number of electrons in its outer shell which means it needs more electrons. A atom is stable with eight electrons in its outer shell and all atoms will try to obtain the eight electrons.  Sometimes they do this by sharing electrons with other molecules. Free radicals are very unstable and reactive, which means that they react with other chemical compounds. [1] You could say that they are aggressive atoms.

Free radicals are a naturally occurring byproduct of living and normally handled by the body’s immune system. However, if a person is subjected to too much stress, pollution, and other forms of stressful self-neglect, the number of free radicals can rise substantially and overwhelm the body’s natural defenses. If the occurrence is frequent, severe, or longstanding, stress and free radicals can result in severe damage to the body.

Free radicals are an underlying mechanism, because they damage the cells, they damage the mitochondria which produce the energy for the body, they damage the DNA which controls all the functions of the cells, they can damage the cell membrane, they can damage the lining in the cell. Similarly they can damage different organs, joints, the heart, the pancreas. Many scientists now believe that 80-90 percent of disorders are related to free radicals.

Hari Sharma, MD Maharishi Ayurvedic Newsletter

Free Radical Theory of Aging

Dr. Denham Harmon developed the Free Radical Theory of Aging in the 1950’s, attributing aging to the accumulation of free radical damage to cells over time, which resulted in a new focus on the idea that stress and free radicals are a major cause of aging. Since stress and free radicals harm the body, this makes sense. This theory has resulted in the promotion of antioxidant supplementation and  techniques to minimize the free radical damage that can potentially occur from modern lifestyles.

Antioxidants and Free Radicals

Dr. Harmon’s Theory of Aging sparked interest in antioxidants and free radicals because people saw an opportunity to help themselves minimize the negative effects of aging with this new tool. There has been a lot of investigation into what is an antioxidant, and how can they best be used. We now have a system of classifying antioxidants called ORAC, which makes it possible to determine if one’s antioxidant intake is adequate. This ORAC database has contributed to the development of new products that capitalize on the new information about antioxidants and free radicals. Some of them, called superfoods, provide large amounts of antioxidants to
minimize free radical damage. They can be a source of exceptional nutrition.

Footnotes

[1] Understanding Free Radicals and Antioxidants”, n.d., Health Check Systems (accessed February, 2011).