The Effect of Oxidative Stress on Mental Health

Understanding oxidative stress is important because we are exposed to many environmental and dietary stressors that can contribute to an imbalance in our body that impacts overall health. Oxidative stress is defined as “a disturbance in the balance between the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) and antioxidant defenses.” 1 Oxidative stress occurs when your body has an imbalance of antioxidants and free radicals. Free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS), are molecules that contain oxygen and have an uneven electron number, making them highly reactive with other molecules and able to cause large chain chemical reactions. When these reactions occur, they can be either harmful or beneficial.2

Free radicals are created endogenously during the metabolic process. Exogenous causes of free radicals occur from exposure to toxins such as pollutants in the environment, certain drugs, heavy metals, cigarette smoke, certain styles of cooking, radiation, alcohol, and chemical solvents.3 When ROS are formed excessively, it can cause oxidative stress which leads to cell damage and, eventually, cell death. In response to this, cells have a network of antioxidants that scavenge the excess ROS.4

Does Oxidative Stress Affect Mental Health?
The link between oxidative stress and mental health is still being explored, though we know that when the brain has oxidative damage, it causes impairment to the nervous system. Oxidative stress appears to play a role in anxiety disorders, high levels of anxiety, and depression. 5 Animal studies have helped to demonstrate the role of oxidative stress in anxiety-like behaviors. 6 In addition to anxiety and depression, oxidative stress is implicated in mental health issues like schizophrenia and bipolar. 7

Nutrition and Oxidative Stress
Research suggests that diets high in carbohydrates and animal proteins, as well as excessive fat consumption, produces ROS, which subsequently leads to oxidative stress.8 Many healthy foods can help to protect your body from damaging effects of ROS. Incorporating antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables can protect you from cancer as well as reduce mortality, so find ways to incorporate foods rich in vitamin C, beta carotene and vitamin E can help to support your overall health.9

Author: Sarah Tronco, CMHIMP, is a Philadelphia Nutrition Coach specializing in mental nutrition. Sarah offers individualized mental health nutrition coaching that empowers you to make sustainable changes to improve your overall well-being.

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash


Tameer Siddiqui, PsyD is a Metro Chicago Therapist offering service to the Chicago Area including the Chicago suburbs. Tameer is a licensed professional counselor and completed her doctoral training in clinical psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.