Oxidative Stress Defined: 200 Years of Science

Oxidative Stress Defined
Oxidative Stress Defined

How is oxidative stress defined? Let’s begin with the history behind the two words. 

Two French chemists, Louis Bernard Guyton de Morveau and his associate, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, gave us the word “oxidative.”

Louis wisely dropped the aristocratic part of his name “de Morveau,” which may have saved him from the guillotine. Unfortunately, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier had no such luck.

The man who named oxygen, Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier.

He lost his head on May 8, 1794. But 17 years earlier, he’d coined the word “oxygène,” which became the English word “oxygen.”

That’s right – when America’s founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1775, they had no idea that oxygen existed! 

Joseph Priestley discovered that plants "purified" the air, but he didn't know why. (Oxidative Stress Defined)
Joseph Priestley discovered that plants “purified” the air, but he didn’t know why.

Their ignorance was despite Joseph Priestley’s sharing some experiments with his friend and mentor Benjamin Franklin in 1772. He would later get credit as one of oxygen’s discoverers.

However, neither of the 18th-century Einsteins understood oxygen’s importance to our planet and bodies at the time. 

Both “oxide” and “oxidation” stem from “oxygen.” “Oxidative” first appeared in Louis and Antoine’s 1787 encyclopedia, Method of Chemical Nomenclature. 

Since then, oxidative has meant the process of combining with oxygen. Specifically, it’s a chemical reaction occurring when electrons move from one molecule to another.

“Stress” traces its roots to Middle English, Old French, and Latin words for:

• pressure

• force

• hardship

• narrowness

• oppression


and compression.

“Oxidative Stress” Goes Mainstream

In 1985, Helmut Sies, M.D. invented the term “oxidative stress” and opened up an entirely new area of discovery. 

A 2015 review on the subject said there were 1,990,000 hits on Google scholar for “oxidative stress,” Today, six years later, there are 2,950,000.

Researchers have been analyzing every aspect of oxidative stress in a variety of fields, including:

• cell biology

• biochemistry

• physiology and pathophysiology

• medicine

• nutrition


and health and disease .

How Is Oxidative Stress Defined?

Oxidative stress defined? It’s what happens to us when too many Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) molecules disturb our cells’ proper functioning. It can also be defined as the lack of balance between free radicals and antioxidants.

Free radicals are a type of ROS molecules. Their electrons are supposed to function in pairs, but one pair has lost its partner due to stress.

And the result of this separation is …absolute madness!

Scientific terms describing unpaired electrons include “unstable” and “highly reactive.” Having experienced some business-partnership divorces, I definitely agree with their descriptions – both during and after the break-up! 

The cell with the newly separated electron is now desperate to repair the split. In search of a suitable companion, its free electron begins splitting up other electron couples.

Eventually, it steals another molecule’s electron! And that affair can quickly divulge into a free-radical chain reaction. 

Years of research have linked irreversible free-radical damage to many diseases.

Antioxidants: Mother Nature’s Electron Donors 

Who better to stop “oxidative” stress than antioxidants? These “free love” machines defuse the free-radical bombs by replacing their missing electrons. The chain reaction stops dead in its tracks.

The antioxidants then quietly exit the field of battle and deactivates without replacing their missing electrons. And the affected cells can return to business as usual!

The antioxidant brigade! (Oxidative Stress Defined)
The antioxidant brigade!

And where do we find these self-sacrificing little molecules?

The best source of antioxidants is a whole-food, plant-based diet containing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables -five or more servings a day, to be specific. Research shows that combining certain fruits and veggies raises their total antioxidant scores.

In other words, when eaten together, they have more electron-donating potential than they do when eaten alone. Now that’s an interaction Ben Franklin and Joseph Priestley would have loved to put under their intellectual microscopes!

Oxidative Stress Defined in General Terms

When your body lacks enough antioxidants to donate electrons to free radical molecules, it experiences oxidative stress. 

So let’s give thanks to Louis and Antoine’s dedication to describing the newly found chemical processes involving oxygen. They didn’t know they’d supplied a term for one of the primary mechanisms behind aging and disease. 

And in doing so, they helped us coin a term to describe the solution – antioxidants

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