Ageing and oxidative stress


Ageing and oxidative stress

We all agree that ageing is inevitable, yet it is not predetermined.  Whilst genetics do play a role, we are in control of the environment to which they are exposed. Within each of us lies a vitality source that can be tapped into regardless of age, our job is to nurture this source and to help its full expression which may lessen some of the unwanted side effects of ageing, oxidative stress and help us live life to its fullest.

Laughter, sunshine, restful sleep, clean water, breathing in fresh air, and moving our body are some of nature’s longevity-boosting gifts that many of us fail to get enough of. Laughter, for example, has been researched (yes it really has) into its reduction in stress hormones which can lower oxidative stress, boost immunity as well as improving blood flow.[i] Diaphragmatic breathing (deep breathing) reduces stress hormones, yet most of us shallow breathe without knowing it. When was the last time you paused to take some mindful deep belly breaths? How about sunlight therapy which the Greeks termed ‘heliotherapy’, which shows that in moderate doses sunlight improves our mood, reduces anxiety, and boosts immunity.[ii]

Natural antioxidants

We are also equipped internally with natural antioxidant defence systems which help to protect our cells from oxidative stress which can lead to faster ageing, as well as helping to protect us from disease and toxic insults from the environment in which we live in.  

Antioxidants combat oxidative stress which occurs when there are too many unstable molecules called free radicals in the body and not enough antioxidants to quench them. This can lead to inflammation and tissue damage. [iii] We may then trigger the symptoms we associate with ageing such as stiffness, arthritic joints and more.

Whilst we all generate free radicals from our internal metabolism and take them in from the outside world, our natural defence mechanisms are in place to help safeguard us as much as possible from the damage they can cause.

The master regulator

One such mechanism is called Nrf2 (pronounced nerf-too) and is an acronym for Nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor.  This is the master regulator of the body’s antioxidant response (ARE) which is switched on when the cell detects it is under attack. This results in the activation of our own natural antioxidants.

Nrf2 is regulated by another protein known as Keap 1 which tightly guards its response. Once activated by stimuli such as toxins or free radicals, various antioxidant and detoxification protective enzymes are called to action.

Think of this like a biological thermostat where it will sense the rising levels of oxidative stress caused by excess free radicals, and will call for backup, in this case, the cell signals via Nrf2/Keap 1 that it needs more antioxidant enzymes such as glutathione, superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase.

Oxidative stress

Oxidative stress is a major contributing factor to faster ageing, we can see this in the face of an individual who has smoked for years with deep wrinkles or spending too long in the sun resulting in sun-damaged, harsh-looking skin. Chronic stress, alcohol, smoking, excess sun exposure, processed foods, hydrogenated/trans fats, toxins and other chemicals all produce higher levels of free radicals so these need to be removed or used minimally if we want to protect our cells.

As we age, Nrf2 declines which lessen our ability to deal with the damage that can occur when these free radicals can run wild and free. This results in an imbalance of the amount of free radicals to available antioxidants, causing cellular damage leading to chronic inflammation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer[iv] 

This all sounds like a war we can never win but there is good news, by increasing our intake of antioxidant-rich foods and supplementing our diet if necessary, we can continue to activate our natural antioxidant switch to help reduce the damage and slow down the ageing process.


Nature has provided us with a bounty of phytonutrients (compounds produced by plants) that are powerful antioxidants, so we can bring in a luxury supply daily.  Many of the bioactive compounds in the foods are Nrf2 pathway regulators such as Quercetin which we find naturally in apples, parsley, berries, citrus fruits and other plant foods. Pomegranates, green tea, turmeric, dark green leafy vegetables, berries and so many other foods contain compounds that also activate our cellular defences. One antioxidant group called carotenoids has shown its ability to reduce oxidative stress and modulate the Nrf2/Keap1 antioxidant pathways[v]. Foods rich in carotenoids include spinach, kale, carrots, watermelon, and sweet potato/yams to name a few.

When it comes to healthy ageing, we can see that it can be considered an ‘inside job’ as it is influenced by our lifestyle and cellular processes. Whilst genetics do play a role, we can make choices that can either support or suppress our vitality with each morsel of food we eat and the healthy (or not so) habits we choose.

Natures prescriptions are simple yet powerful, using her gifts of soaking up some sunlight, deep breathing, moving our body, drinking fresh water, optimal sleep and feasting on the rainbow of colours from her table in the form of organic whole foods are some the most natural ways we can tap into our own fountain of youth.

Don’t forget to stock up on those belly laughs too!




[iv] Liguori I, Russo G, Curcio F, Bulli G, Aran L, Della-Morte D, Gargiulo G, Testa G, Cacciatore F, Bonaduce D, Abete P. Oxidative stress, aging, and diseases. Clin Interv Aging. 2018 Apr 26;13:757-772. doi: 10.2147/CIA.S158513. PMID: 29731617; PMCID: PMC5927356.

[v] Chen P, Li L, Gao Y, Xie Z, Zhang Y, Pan Z, Tu Y, Wang H, Han Q, Hu X, Xin X. β-carotene provides neuro protection after experimental traumatic brain injury via the Nrf2-ARE pathway. J Integr Neurosci. 2019 Jun 30;18(2):153-161. doi: 10.31083/j.jin.2019.02.120. PMID: 31321956.

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Elisabeth Philipps

Karen Devine

Karen Devine

Shelley Harvey

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