Oxidative Stress and Theories of Ageing: Part 1


The anti-ageing business is a multi-billion pound industry with so many wanting to reverse the signs of ageing through topical, supplemental and surgical interventions. There are many products on the market promising to turn back the clock but do any of them work? The answer is, no, probably not.

In the health world things are a little different, we believe in prevention and complete health, not quick fixes which only address part of the picture. Every system is connected and the body works as a whole. If you want to fix one thing, you must address everything else. We are all wired differently and so some people genetically age better than others, but environmental toxins, fake foods, high stress and a sedentary lifestyle is constantly accelerating the ageing process.

Ageing has many arms, whether it’s cosmetic, cognitive or cardiovascular they’re all connected and although the fountain of youth is probably out of our reach, there are likely things we can do to prevent premature ageing.

What causes ageing?

Here are some of the theories surrounding the ageing process:

Oxidative Damage – Free Radical Theory

As oxidative damage will age the core of an apple that’s been bitten into, it too will age us humans.

No doubt you’ve heard of the damaging effects of free radicals. A free radical is an atom or molecule with unpaired electrons and can result when oxygen reacts with molecules. Once a free radical is formed, it will steal electrons from nearby molecules (turning that into a free radical) and causing a cascade of damage and a vast amount of instability. Free radicals are waste products of chemical reactions which can be the result of eating fried or smoked foods, smoking, pollution, alcohol, pesticides and even just the air we breathe. Examples of free radicals include superoxide (SO), reactive oxygen species (ROS), hydrogen peroxide (H202) and peroxynitrite (OONO-). Like most things in the body, it’s not always black and white and balance is key to everything, so free radicals do have their place, but in excess, it becomes a problem.

This process of stealing electrons is called oxidation and can cause mutations to DNA, damage to proteins and lead on to a multitude of health conditions including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and atherosclerosis; all age related diseases.

There are so many nutrients in food and herbs at our disposal to combat such damage. Berries for example have a potent antioxidant content which is high in vitamins and minerals necessary for cellular protection from oxidation by acting as electron donors. A diet rich in colourful fruit and vegetables is necessary to ensure support. The colour in foods such as these are indicators of antioxidant presence.

Mitochondrial Theory of Ageing (MTA)

Vector illustrator of cross section of mitochondria.The mitochondria are organelles and is in the majority of human and animal cells with exception of red blood cells. They are prevalent in the liver and muscle cells, particularly the heart. Their function is to produce energy (of which is 90% of the bodies ATP) via the electron transport chain and citric acid cycle. The mitochondria generates energy from food and facilitates cellular function and metabolism. It is responsible for movement, brain activity, respiration, cardiac movement and without it there would be no life.

Unlike other organelles, the mitochondria contain their own DNA (mtDNA). This DNA encodes for the cycles which produce ATP. The negative side to mtDNA is that it doesn’t have the protection of histone proteins that regular nucleic DNA has. These histone proteins protect against damage from free radicals. With no protection or enzymatic repair mechanism in place for the mitochondria, damage can quite easily occur.

Another function of the mitochondria is to produce free radicals itself, including that of ROS and SO which is the most powerful of free radicals. Out of the 85% total oxygen that the mitochondria utilises, 1-2% is converted to the production of SO. Most of this is converted to H202 by superoxide dismutase (SOD) (Genetic variations can indicate that some individuals do not produce optimal SOD). However, H202 and the electron transport chain which is a big role of the mitochondria, leads to a general wearing out due to damage to mtDNA.

Tying in with the free radical theory, the mitochondrion ability to release ROS is said to be a contributing factor to accelerated ageing itself. Calorie restriction has been found to decrease this process in rat models. This ties in again with the insulin theory discussed shortly.

Overtime, the functionality of the mitochondria declines. As more and more build up, tissues decrease in functionality and a gradual degeneration ensues.

Whilst we can’t fight inevitability, there are some things we can do to support mitochondrial function if necessary.

  • B Vitamins. B vitamins are vital for the production of energy. B3 and B2 is required for the electron transport chain within the mitochodria.
  • ALA & L-Carnitine are both found in the mitochondrial membrane, especially in muscle tissue and together work to increase optimisation and functionality.
  • CoQ10 levels decrease once passed age 30. It is used in mitochondrial encephalomyopathies (mitochondrial dysfunction), is present in the electron transport chain and its anti-ageing effects are attributed to its role in mitochondrial skin cells.
  • Glutathione is a necessary antioxidant to the mtDNA due to its assistance in neutralising SO.
  • N-Acetyl-Cysteine. More stable than cysteine, NAC actively increases levels of glutathione within cells.

Poor Cell membrane permeability

Omega-3 Phospholipid

Our cells have membranes made up of a phospholipid bilayer which acts as a barrier to outside the cell. Along this membrane there are proteins and receptors which regulate activation and transport of molecules (depending on the cell).

As the cells lose their moisture they solidify allowing toxins to accumulate inside. This can occur anywhere in the body from the brain, restricting signals, to the skin resulting in liver spots.

As we age, the integrity of the lipid membrane decreases and the ability for chemical messaging declines. The idea is that toxic lipofuscin becomes less manageable as we age. Essentially, lipofuscin is a brown pigmented waste material from blood cells which accumulate hindering cellular processes. The first sign of lipofuscin is memory decline. High levels of lipofuscin has been found in conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

Hydroxyl radical is a free radical that creates lipofuscin. Free iron (unbound) contributes to the production and feeding of lipofuscin which is one of the reasons why supplementation of iron should be monitored by a healthcare practitioner.

Hayflicks Phenomenon

Mitosis is a process by which cells divide. Hayflick’s phenomenon is based on the idea that ageing is the result of decrease in cellular replication. Once cells have reached capacity of division they will die.bigstock--202747543

Different types of cells have different rules on division. Fibroblasts have a 50x division limit, immune and endocrine cells divide somewhat and nerve and muscle cells don’t divide. These all contribute to ageing. Conversely, some cells do not have a limit, for example your intestinal cells. In a matter of days, your total digestive tract is completely new!

Telomeres are the caps at the end of chromosome strands. As cells divide, they get shorter, and so correlates with the ageing of the human body. The strand never duplicates the telomere (as this would cause mutations) and as it reaches end stages, the cell begins apoptosis (cell death). Once the cell can divide no more, it has reached the ‘Hayflick Limit’.

Telomerase maintains telomere length, replacing telomeres which are lost at division, providing infinite replication capacity. Without telomerase, cells can hit their hayflick limit as normal so telomerase activators might lengthen or repair healthy cells. Telomerase is what is often found in cancer cells so treatment into telomerase blockers are used.

Glucose and Insulin

Glucose is the sticky breakdown sugar of carbohydrates. It is the primary source of energy for the body, being utilised in tissues such as the brain, nerves and muscles.  Insulin is a hormone released by the pancreas to lower glucose levels in the blood by taking them inside cells for energy or otherwise stored as glycogen in the liver as a buffer for blood glucose levels or muscles for energy. Once storage has reached capacity, it’s stored as fat. If there is insulin resistance, this process is disrupted and glucose can remain in the blood stream longer where it can cause glycation reactions and a range of issues.

Glycation reactions is the name to the process whereby glucose can irreversibly stick to proteins and fats in the blood stream called ‘advanced glycation end-products’ (AGEs). AGEs effects collagen and elastin, proteins which are abundant in the body maintaining tissue integrity not just on the skin but within the body too. Glycation in the skin increases after age 35 causing further signs of ageing such as wrinkles. It’s also notable that glycation on the skin is only enhanced by excessive exposure to UV rays.

As you’ve probably guessed, the theory here is centered on high blood sugar. Those with high blood sugar are more likely to have accelerated ageing than those with normal blood sugar levels. If you are concerned about your blood sugar levels, you should speak to your GP.

Insulin has an additional mechanism which can affect the ageing process. Calorie restriction unsurprisingly reduces insulin levels. The benefits of this is that insulin signaling-pathways are said to influence the rate of ageing by exerting hormonal changes in the body. Lowered insulin and mitochondria stimulation of ROS are both results of calorie restrictive diets.

How to control blood glucose levels

Whilst a lot of the theories here are somewhat out of our control, you can control your glucose levels. Now you know how refined sugars can affect the ageing process, you can actively do your best to stabilise your blood sugar.

As muscles use glucose for energy, weight training is an excellent way to increase muscle mass which will mop up more glucose. As we age, we lose muscle mass which will increase AGEs so it’s important to maintain an active lifestyle.

Antioxidants protect cells from damage so be sure to regularly consume a variety of fruit and vegetables.

Low glycemic foods will assist blood sugar levels by slowing the release of glucose and avoid sugar spikes. (Read 6 ways to balance your blood sugar levels for more).

Be sure to look out for part two where I will discuss DHEA, chronic inflammation, decline of the immune system and genetic factors.

We do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.

2 thoughts on “Oxidative Stress and Theories of Ageing: Part 1

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