Free Radicals, Oxidative Stress, & Chronic Illness (CFS, RA, Lupus, Fibromyalgia, etc.)



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Oxidative Stress, Baby

We’ve all heard of oxidative stress by now.  It’s when free radicals attack healthy cells and cause them to “rust” like a nail, or how skin can get that leathery look.

Free radicals are a byproduct of metabolism in your body, for instance.  They can also be produced by environmental toxins, when sun and air pollution mix, or by your liver due to poor detoxification.

If free radicals overwhelm the body’s ability to regulate them, a condition known as oxidative stress ensues. Free radicals thus adversely alter lipids, proteins, and DNA and trigger a number of human diseases.  Oxidative stress is now thought to make a significant contribution to all inflammatory diseases. (Lobo, Patil, Phatak, & Chandra, 2010)

Remember high school chemistry where you learned cells are made of molecules? Molecules, in turn have one or more atoms of one or more elements joined in chemical bond. You may recall (or may not :)) images of an atom as a circle with a nucleus holding protons.

Electrons circulate in the shells (or circles) around the atom. Atoms like to have a paired number of electrons in their outer shell for stability. So atoms get together and share electrons, forming stable molecules. To share they must split their bonds.

Here is how free radicals are made: when a weak bond splits and leaves a molecule with an unpaired electron, a free radical is formed. A free radical is smart and unstable. It quickly attacks a stable molecule to steal an electron. If the attack is successful, the molecule that gives up an electron then becomes a free radical itself. You can see where this is going. The end result is the disruption, oxidation, and death of healthy cells. Oxidative stress. Stressful enough?

What you may not know is that oxidative stress may play a role in auto-immune conditions. How? Oxidative stress can create pro-inflammatory cytokines. Excessive toxins may cause your white blood cells to down-regulate. This inhibition of your immune system may lead to more infections, thyroid dsyregulation, hair loss, premature menopause, constipation, and, yes, fatigue.

This is the one main reason I’m big on good nutrition and stress management. Self-care and practicing a healthy lifestyle can make a huge difference in the quality of your health and well-being. You want to protect your cells from losing their structure over time due to free radicals and oxidative stress. You can help protect your health by eating super dense foods which are high in anti-oxidants. Also, by managing stress levels, you may be able to minimize free radical damage. Both of these strategies can go a long way toward protecting your cells.

Oxidative stress can affect not only your immune system and organs, but also your nervous system. Additionally, oxidative stress may damage the mitochondria, the energy factories in cells, affecting what is known as mitochondrial energy. This may play a huge role, and be a big reason why people with chronic fatigue in general are so exhausted.

What happens when you have created too many free radicals in your body? You can deplete your glutathione levels, your master anti-oxidant. This scenario may lead to chronic illness.

Glutathione is present in every cell in the body and is low in almost every chronic condition (about 80%) including diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc. Normally it soaks up free radicals. But if you don’t make enough and/or create oxidative stress in your body, you are probably low in this most important anti-oxidant.

Glutathione may also strongly affect mitochondrial performance, which is what produces energy at the cellular level in your body. Low glutathione levels are implicated in several neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Since CFS is strongly linked to dysregulation in the hypothalamus, there is speculation that low glutathione levels might be a culprit in this condition. Low glutathione levels have also been linked to autism. Low glutathione is related to inflammation in lupus and arthritis. Also, it is implicated in MS. Low levels can affect the immune system and may lead to Th2 predominance.  Are you seeing the connection yet?


In people who reach 100 years of age, there is a strong correlation between long life and high glutathione levels, some centarians even having levels as high as people in their 30s and 40s.  How do you protect yourself?  Your body makes glutathione, but if you are low, or don’t produce enough, you want to eat foods that are glutathione precursors, like fruits and vegetables high in bioflavoinoids.  Other great sources are raw foods like avocadoes, peanut butter, and whey protein.   See the section on Autism in The Memory of Health for a full list (pg.186).

Free radicals can also be produced by the liver, if one doesn’t detox properly (due to poor methylation, for example).   Free radicals are produced anyway, but your body can make too many of them as well.  There are actually two phases of liver detoxification: Phase I and Phase II.  In Phase I, your liver needs anti-oxidant power (such as glutathione) to regulate the free radical production in your liver, and also everything that travels through your liver.  You get this anti-oxidant power from that which is produced naturally inside of your body, and also from that which comes from antioxidants found in food.

Phase II is where your liver hopefully moves out unwanted toxins, compounds, etc.  In some people, this phase does not work as well as it should, which can lead to a build-up of even more toxins and subsequent free radicals, i.e. oxidative damage in your liver, and send out free radicals into your bloodstream, causing oxidative stress due to excessive free radicals in your body.  You can read more about the process of methylation in my book, The Memory of Health, in the section: Chronic Fatigue & Poor Methylation.

One of best things I found for gentle, natural liver detoxification is eating leafy greens.  I know it can seem hard to eat salad or leafy greens on a regular basis, but it can make a huge difference in your ability to detox and also raise your magnesium levels.  What I have found that works, is to make organic greens the base of my meals, and then add whatever else I love on top.  The point isn’t to “detox,” it’s to aid in your liver moving out toxins.  I will address this topic more soon here.

Some people use therapeutic grade wild orange or lemon essential oils (check with your doctor first).  I find this works for me, via a few drops in yogurt or smoothies.  One of the active ingredients in lemon and wild orange is d-Limonene, which may help with Phase II liver detoxification and may assist in building up glutathione levels (Brudnak, 2000; Sun, 2007).  MSM and turmeric help me with liver health as well.

If your body produces excessive free radicals in Phase I, you may deplete your glutathione levels.  You need glutathione for Phase II detoxification as well.  If you don’t have enough in Phase II, you may be susceptible to oxidative stress.  You can’t take a pill for glutathione – you can take precursors in pill form, but you make glutathione, you don’t take it – but you can eat foods and that increase natural glutathione production and take supplements like MSM, etc. (Mercola, 2013).


Glutathione Deficiency and Oxidative Stress

As we have been saying, glutathione is one of the major anti-oxidants and the master detoxifier.  It is a major component of your immune system, key to controlling inflammation, and a primary preventer of aging.  If you are not as vital as you’d like to be, you may be low in glutathione – and possibly CoQ10 (Bergamini, et al., 2012).

Many of us do not produce enough glutathione, especially those with chronic conditions who may have some impairment of the genes involved in glutathione metabolism.  How do you know if you are low in glutathione?  Get a genetic test (try an alternative practitioner).  There are other liver enzymes to consider being tested for as well, including the very important family of Cytochrome P450 enzymes.

Without glutathione, or without enough of it, your body cannot rid itself of environmental toxins, processed foods, efficiently detox hormones, heavy metals, prescription drugs, etc.  How can you protect yourself? Eat more raw foods and more super-foods like wheat grass and spirulina.  These foods naturally contain high levels of glutathione precursors.  Increase your intake of peanut butter, sweet potatoes and turmeric.  Try natural whey protein.  Exercise increases glutathione levels and detoxifies your liver.  The time is now to start down a new path toward health.



CFS and Oxidative Stress

It may be that people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or even other chronic conditions have impaired immune function due to low glutathione levels.  This, in turn, may lead to muscle fatigue (myalgia – read fibromyalgia) and other symptoms associated with CFS.


Glutathione is essential to aerobic muscular contractions.  Is there competition between your immune system and muscular system for glutathione?  Testing does point to this (Bounous & Molson, 1999).


As Dr. Rich Van Konynenburg pointed out:

As a result of the shift to Th2…the immune system responds [and] further drains the body’s supply of cysteine to make glutathione, robbing the skeletal muscles of their supply, as Bounous and Molson hypothesized.  The muscles thus go low in glutathione and the oxidizing free radicals there (including peroxynitrite) rise in concentration, blocking their metabolism and producing fatigue.  Even though the HPA axis becomes down- regulated, there is still not an effective Th1 response to attack the viral infections, because of the glutathione depletion at this point. (Van Konynenburg, 2003)


MTHFR Mutation and Reduced Glutathione Production


As I mentioned, a major common factor in most people who have chronic conditions is reduced glutathione production.  Dr. Mark Hyman describes it best in this classic article: Glutathione: The Mother of All Antioxidants (Hyman, 2011).


What’s also relevant is what happens when you have a gene defect known as the Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase (MTHFR) mutation:


When you have the MTHFR mutation, the pathway for glutathione production is partially blocked and you have much lower levels than normal.   Glutathione is the key antioxidant and detoxifier in our body, so when its production is hindered one is more susceptible to stress and less tolerant to toxins.


… accumulation of heavy metals and toxins may lead to a multitude of symptoms including disease, memory loss, rashes, premature greying hair, hair loss, social deficits, migraines, depression, anxiety, nausea, diarrhea, cancers, and more.


[With children] who are autistic, 98% have a form of this MTHFR mutation.  A lack of methylfolate hinders the multi-step process that converts the amino acid homocysteine, to another amino acid called methionine.  As a result, homocysteine builds up in the bloodstream and the amount of methionine is reduced.   The body needs methionine to make proteins and many other important compounds. It also aids processes in the body from breaking down histamine, serotonin, and dopamine.  Thus, this defective methylation pathway is associated with psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and bipolar, as well as auto-immunity disorders, ADD, autism. (“MTHRF: Since an estimated 60% of the population has this condition,” 2013)


To find out much more about the MTHFR gene mutation, visit the website created by Dr. Ben Lynch where he reports on research studies: (Lynch, 2015).


Excerpts from my book, The Memory of Health.  You can find it here:


When I developed chronic fatigue, I turned to the natural foods industry to seek answers.   I began working in the supplements department of a natural foods store, and taking high-quality supplements (I’ve tried hundreds of them to find which ones work for me), and by learning how to eat well, I improved my energy levels and well-being significantly.  You can read more about my  journey here and in my book, The Memory of Health (see link below).

I cannot take prescription drugs, so for me, having access to high-quality supplements was a game-changer.  Of course, access to organic, non-GMO food is a game-changer too.

In my quest for answers to my health challenges and well-being, I became a Conscious Consumer. 

I share many theories and topics related to CFS and chronic illness as well as the road to well-being in great detail in my book, The Memory of Health.

You can find my book here.