January 4, 2016
351 Oxygen and Disease [4 Jan 2016]
Over the holidays I read a book (on my new Kindle e-reader!) by Nick Lane (2002) called “Oxygen: the molecule that made the world”. The first half of the book describes how oxygen affected the evolution of life on earth, and vice-versa. The second half explores the dual role that oxygen plays in health and disease.
Oxygen is essential for life; without a fresh supply we die in a matter of minutes. Fuel from the food we eat is combined with oxygen in the mitochondria of our cells to produce the energy that runs our bodies (see #302 January 2015). But in the process, oxidative free radicals like hydroxyl, super oxide dismutase and hydrogen peroxide are formed. Until neutralized by antioxidants, these free radicals damage whatever they come in contact with including cell membranes and DNA. Most free radicals attack the mitochondria in which they are created but some spill out where they can damage the rest of the cell including the nuclear DNA. As we age this damage accumulates at a faster and faster rate until we die. That’s the free radical theory of aging. For more on this see my column #303 from January 2015.
Lane defines oxidative stress as “an imbalance between free-radical production and antioxidant protection”. But oxidative stress isn’t all bad, in fact it is a necessary component of our immune reaction to infection. Infections create oxidative stress which triggers the immune system to produce both inflammation to attack the infection and stress resistance to protect our cells. The problem is that the rise in oxidative stress from aging also triggers inflammation. But unlike the infection, this doesn’t go away and so becomes chronic. And chronic inflammation is behind most if not all the diseases of aging. The same process that protects us from infection when we are young causes suffering and eventually death in old age.
So what can be done to prevent or reduce this suffering? Lane mentions the spice curcumin for its ability to suppress inflammation by stimulating activity of the anti-stress enzyme haem oxygenase. To me an even better approach would be to increase mitochondrial glutathione to prevent oxidative damage at its source (see #304, 318 & 319 Feb & May 2015).
Oxygen – the molecule that gives us life also causes disease and death. We can only try to postpone the inevitable.
For more information on this or other natural health topics, stop in and talk to Stan; for medical advice consult your licensed health practitioner.