What Is a pro-Oxidant?

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  • Written By: Haven Lee
  • Edited By: Rachel Catherine Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 12 January 2020
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A pro-oxidant is a substance that triggers oxidative stress by increasing free radicals, reactive molecules known to damage cells. Oxidation occurs when oxygen molecules interact with other substances. Molecules maintain stability when they have a paired number of electrons. When oxidation takes place, an electron is lost, making the molecule unstable. The oxidative stress caused by pro-oxidants is associated with premature aging and disease development.

Free radicals are a natural by-product of energy uptake. When the body converts oxygen to energy, reactive oxygen species are produced. These molecules are highly reactive due to an unpaired number of electrons. The reactivity of free radicals can produce significant damage to amino acids, DNA and fatty acids. In some instances, oxidation helps destroy toxins and protect the body, but excess oxidation causes stress.

A number of pro-oxidant substances cause damage to fuel manufacturing cell centers known as mitochondria. These vital cells are energy powerhouses and produce the energy required for proper functioning. Damage to mitochondria leads to fatigue and an inability to produce enough energy for vital functions, and ongoing oxidative stress that damages the mitochondria sets the stage for degenerative diseases and accelerated aging.


Pro-oxidants create a vicious cycle of instability because reactive oxygen species voraciously seek to pair up. To complete their pairs, free radicals steal electrons from other molecules. Once the molecule loses an electron, it becomes unstable and repeats the cycle by seeking out and removing electrons from yet another molecule. The continuous process of removing electrons creates an increased level of cellular instability, and with time, this ongoing process causes damage to genetic material and other important cells.

Antioxidants are chemicals that are capable of bringing stability by neutralizing pro-oxidant substances by seeking out unstable molecules and pairing up with them to prevent them from stealing electrons and creating damage. When the amount of antioxidant substances equals or exceeds the amount of pro-oxidants, the body can prevent cellular damage and maintain stability. If pro-oxidant chemicals increase well beyond the level of antioxidants, the body is unable to keep up and oxidative stress results.

Eating a healthy diet helps maintain the balance between antioxidants and pro-oxidant substances. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidant substances that help protect the body from free-radical damage. Green tea contains an antioxidant called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), commonly known to reduce oxidative stress and prevent disease progression. EGCG also possesses positive pro-oxidant activity by inducing cell death in tumors, which helps protect against cancer.


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