Jargon You Should Know: “Oxidative Stress” and “Inflammation”

There are some really important terms that come up repeatedly and are actually important to understand. Two of these are “oxidative stress” and “inflammation.” So, here’s a quick description of what these terms mean, along with analogies to help you remember them.

Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress refers to the buildup of a particular family of toxic molecules in the body called reactive oxygen species (ROS). Both endogenous and exogenous mechanisms lead to ROS generation. To turn food into energy, cells pass around electrons. Sometimes these electrons escape their intended path and attach to oxygen-containing molecules turning them into ROS. Alternatively, the formation of ROS can be induced by a variety of exogenous agents such as heavy metals, pollutants, toxins, drugs, smoke/ tobacco or radiation.

You can think about ROS like the proverbial bull (or ox) in a china shop that you just shocked with an electric rod. They are unstable, dangerous, and wreak havoc on everything around them. They bump around causing all sorts of damage to the proteins (enzymes), lipids (membranes), and nucleic acids (DNA) that make up every part of every one of your cells. So, next time you read the word “oxidative stress,” just think about an ox named Ross who was shocked with an electric rod and is smashing plates in a cellular china shop.

That said, as usually in our complex human body, there is hardly anything that is only black or white or good and bad, respectively. Some oxidative stress is necessary for cell signaling, immune response and even the positive effects of exercise. A little bit along the lines or “what does not kill us makes us stronger”. Only when ROS exceeds the body’s antioxidants capacity it gets really harmful.


The reason inflammation isn’t well understood is that it’s such a ridiculously complex and wide-reaching topic. You’d need an encyclopedia series to define it. Nevertheless, here’s my attempt: Inflammation is the state in which your immune system army is activated. Indeed, your immune system is exactly like an army. It’s a hierarchical system of cell soldiers (white blood cells) equipped with sophisticated molecular communication devices (chemokines) and molecular weaponry (cytokines) that exists to defend your body against dangerous foreign adversaries (viruses and bacteria). Inflammation is essential just like national defense is essential. However, an army is also severely dangerous. When it becomes activated inappropriately, it can cause terrible damage. And, if you live in the developed world, chances are it is this inappropriate “chronic inflammation” that is of concern to your health. So, when you hear “inflammation,” think about inappropriate chronic inflammation and think about your immune cell army in the midst of a constant civil war, blowing up bombs and setting fire to (inflaming) your home turf.


So, those are the definitions. Now, WHY are oxidative stress and inflammation important concepts to understand? Let us answer that question with another question, or five. What scares you more, tuberculosis or diabetes? Smallpox or Alzheimer’s disease? Malaria or obesity? Polio or heart disease? Rubella or aging? Basically, every major chronic disease you can think of or are likely to worry about, including aging, has its roots in oxidative stress and inflammation. Don’t believe us? See for yourself. Just google “[your favorite disease here] inflammation” or “[your favorite disease here] oxidative stress” and see what comes up. What’s more, our modern environments, lifestyles, and diets often promote oxidative stress and inflammation because, as smart our bodies are, they are also pretty dumb. A cell may mount the same stress response to a side of onion rings as it would a virus, starting a cascade of events that can lead to oxidative stress and inflammation, and eventually to chronic disease. But although that image may sound pessimistic, remember… You are the commander in chief! And by getting informed, which we can tell you’re making the effort to do, you can tame the oxidative stress and inflammation in your body and lead a healthier life!

No medical advice

The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.