- Oxidative stress impedes proper athletic recovery.
- Antioxidants neutralize free radicals.
- When the body’s system is overwhelmed with free radicals, it enters a state of oxidative stress.
- Athletes can choose to eat specific foods and add spices to improve the body’s antioxidant abilities.
The body is only as strong as its cells! Strong cells promote full athletic recovery and peak performance. So, if you are someone seeking to reach your peak, it’s time to start thinking about optimizing your cellular health.
As an athlete, you may already be familiar with the stress that intensive training and competition puts on your cellular health, but today we want to take you one step further and teach you a bit more about the role oxidative stress plays in athletic recovery. Our goal? To help you enhance your athletic recovery by recognizing and choosing foods that mitigate the impact of oxidative stress.
What is oxidative stress?
Free radicals (ROS) form when a molecule oxidates, leading it to “go rogue” and cause cellular damage—increasing inflammation and interfering with your ability to recover, prevent injury, have a robust immune system, and perform your best.
As with most of our bodies’ processes, balance exists with free radicals. Your body produces ROS for processes such as creating specific molecules or fighting off pathogens, and then counteracts them with antioxidants.
Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between oxidative forces and antioxidant systems. When free radicals exceed the body’s ability to match them, they can “adversely alter lipids, proteins, and DNA,” and the body will find itself experiencing a state of oxidative stress.
Think of oxidative stress as the human body’s equivalent to rusting. A process that, if left unmanaged, impacts our energy levels, resilience, and memory. Normally when cells are functioning properly, enzymes are produced to counteract oxidative damage. They block the rusting process from causing harm to your cells.
Your body’s ability to enact this protective mechanism can be very much influenced by your genes. However, since genes are manipulated by the environments they find themselves in, certain environments (diets and lifestyle habits) aid in lowering oxidative load, or burden, to maintain the health of your cells.
Extensive training and endurance exercises increases the potential for oxidative stress.
What are the main causes of oxidative stress?
- Over or under-eating: Oxidative stress caused by extreme eating patterns, including not eating enough macronutrients as well as overeating
- Poor diet: A Western diet with increased sugar consumption is linked to increased oxidative stress biomarkers. Diets such as the Mediterranean diet show fewer signs of oxidative stress.
- Fried and fast foods: Heating cooking oils to high temperatures reduces the stability of the oil and can create ROS. The types of oils used for fast foods (canola, peanut, and vegetable oils) are especially damaging.
- Alcohol: ROS are produced when alcohol is broken down by the body. Alcohol can decrease the amount of antioxidants that the body naturally produces.
- Inflammation: When the body is in a constant state of inflammation, it will continue to release ROS as if fighting off a harmful pathogen.
- Stress: When the body is under stress, the immune system sends messenger cytokines which trigger ROS—creating oxidative stress and negatively impacting sleep.
- Environmental: cigarette smoke, UV light, pollution
- Frequent blackening and/or burning of food on the grill
Managing oxidative stress
A single antioxidant can only neutralize one free radical. That’s why eating specific antioxidant-containing or -initiating foods can minimize oxidative stress.
Greater toxic burden = greater oxidative stress
Athletes and other high-performers tend to experience and consume more—more oxidative stress, more food, more water, more breathing!
Toxic burden, or toxic load, is the accumulation of toxins and waste found in the body. Toxic load comes from foreign chemicals in the air and water, those on and in our food, and products we use such as for personal care or household cleaning. Since athletes have heightened food requirements, if you aren’t careful with their food choices, you could be inadvertently adding to their bodies’ toxic load.
Think about a youth athlete who is competing weekly, with daily training, who is oblivious to the impact of both oxidative stress and toxic burden. By the time they reach their mid-20s, if they haven’t made nutritional and lifestyle choices that support the elimination and avoidance of chemical toxins, then they are going to run into problems.
Now, this may happen even earlier if someone is genetically pre-disposed to having trouble with detoxification and methylation, even if they eat healthy, exercise, and modulate their stress.
We recommend nutrigenomics tests to our clients so that they can best understand their bodies’ predisposition to detoxification and make the best nutritional and supplemental changes to enhance their recovery. Talk to us about nutrigenomics testing.
The effects of toxic burden can range from respiratory issues and weight gain to cancer, endocrine and hormone disruption, and reproductive toxicity.
However since you it’s possible to control the burden of oxidation on your body, let’s discuss how you can activate this protective process to safeguard your health and peak performance.
The master regulator—Nrf2
Your body’s master regulator of cellular resistance to oxidants is the Nrf2 factor. It tells the body to switch on specific protective genes.
The Nrf2 factor is pre-installed in your cells. You can think of it like an engine that needs to be turned on to activate certain enzymes that fight free radicals. This pathway is certainly incredible—enzymes can neutralize 1 million ROS per second!
As an athlete, your present and long-term performance success will be largely dependent on your ability to reduce the impact of oxidative stress in your body. Reducing the havoc caused by free radicals can be simple given the proper fueling and supplement plans for your unique needs and your sport. You can reduce mayhem of free radicals by:
- increasing antioxidants in your system through food or by activating the antioxidant-making (Nrf2) pathway
- avoiding triggers such as those listed above
Certain foods can help balance out the oxidative stress in your body and improve athletic recovery. These foods activate the Nrf2 pathway which initiates a cascade of enzymes, including catalase, glutathione, and SOD.
The best foods to balance oxidative stress in the body:
- Cruciferous and green veggies can help set the pathway into motion.
- Certain spices like turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mustard
- Herbs like oregano
- Dark chocolate
- Green and white teas
Athletes have such a deep understanding of their bodies. You likely wouldn’t have gotten this far if you weren’t able to tap into your intuition in terms of the best training schedules, ways to recover, and foods to avoid. This deep connection between mind and body is one of the many reasons we love working with elite athletes.
One of our main goals with athletes is to empower them to make the appropriate nutritional choices at the appropriate times to ensure that the body is well-fueled and recovered for your next activity as well as for the overarching health of your body and mind.
It is essential that you, as a high-performer, understand the risks of high-intensity activity. In this case, that means learning the basics of oxidative stress as well as methods to reduce the impact of free radicals in your body. Take a look at the list of food above and choose one that you want to experiment with adding to your fueling plan this week.