What is Cellular Stress?

My 13th book, Best Future You, is out!

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from the book and blogging frequently about the main concept in the book – which is the idea of harnessing your body’s internal cellular biochemistry to achieve true balance in body, mind, and spirit – and in doing so, help you to become your “Best Future You” in terms of how you look, how you feel, and how you perform on every level.

Chapter 1 – The Battle for Balance

What is Cellular Stress?

A simple way to understand the meaning of “stress” is to define it as “the gap between demands and ability to meet those demands.” Every individual, of course, has a different capacity to effectively cope with stress and a different level of functioning when faced with stressful situations. The same is true of each of the trillions of cells in the human body. We all know someone who seems to be better “under pressure” than others. But even the rare person who has a high tolerance for stress ultimately has a breaking point. Add enough total stress to anyone – or any cell – and health and performance soon suffers.

To deepen our understanding of cellular stress, it is helpful to recognize the distinctions that many of the top stress researchers in the world use when analyzing this condition. First, is that the type of stress faced by our cousins in the animal kingdom, are typically short-term, temporary, or acute stressors. For example, if you were a zebra, you could consider a lion chasing you to be an acute stress. The lion charges at you from the bushes, you mount a “fight or flight” stress response to respond to the stress – and (assuming you get away) the stress response is over and done within a few minutes. That sort of short-term acute stress is distinct from the type of stressors that modern humans routinely face, because our stressors are longer-term, repeated, and chronic.

However, unlike animals, humans undergo not only physical stress but also psychological and social stress. Certainly, some sources of psychological stress are grounded in reality, such as the pressure you feel to make your monthly rent or mortgage payments. Other psychological stressors emanate from our imagination—for instance, the stressful encounters that you can imagine having with your boss, coworkers, kids, spouse, or others. So not only do you have to cope with real-life stressors, but your large, complex, and supposedly “advanced” brain has also developed the capacity to actually create stressful situations where none previously existed.

Earlier I described how the body can protect itself from cellular stress (oxidative stress) with “antioxidants” – which we can define as “substances that decrease the severity of oxidative stress caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS).” There are two main types of antioxidants:

  • Exogenous (meaning “outside” the body) – which includes dietary antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, & E, minerals such as selenium and zinc, and phytonutrients such as flavonoids (e.g. from blueberries, cranberries, grapes, etc) and carotenoids (including beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein from carrots, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, etc).
  • Endogenous (meaning “inside” the body) antioxidants are enzymes that are naturally manufactured within each of our cells, such as superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, glutathione peroxidase and a variety of others.

Our internal protective antioxidant enzymes tend to be much more potent and effective in counteracting the damaging effects of free radicals compared to exogenous dietary antioxidants. This is because dietary antioxidants can only scavenge free radicals in a “one-to-one” relationship – for example, one molecule of vitamin C (antioxidant) quenching one molecule of hydrogen peroxide (free radical). This 1:1 relationship is referred to as “stoichiometric” scavenging – and while important and essential to normal biochemical function in the body, it pales in comparison to the potency of the “catalytic” scavenging of free radicals that is possible with endogenous antioxidant enzymes. The antioxidant enzymes produced by each and every one of our own cells is approximately 1 million times more effective than exogenous antioxidants because the catalytic process allows each antioxidant enzymes to react with and deactivate millions of free radicals every second.

Thanks for reading – tune in for the next installment about, “Antioxidants – right where you need them most.

Shawn M Talbott, PhD, CNS, LDN, FACSM, FAIS, FACN
Nutritional Biochemist and Author


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The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance, and Reclaim Your Natural Energy
Killer at Large – Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat – an award-winning documentary film exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic
The Cortisol Connection – Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health (Hunter House)
The Cortisol Connection Diet – The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House)
Cortisol Control and the Beauty Connection – The All-Natural Inside-Out Approach to Reversing Wrinkles, Preventing Acne, And Improving Skin Tone (Hunter House)
Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living – Lasting Relief for Flexible Joints, Strong Bones and Ache-Free Muscles (Chronicle Publishers – Currant Books)
The Immune Miracle – The All-Natural Approach for Better Health, Increased Energy and Improved Mood (GLH Nutrition, 2012)
A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements – an Outstanding Academic Text of 2004 (Haworth Press)
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