How Toxins Affect Your Health
Every day we are bombarded with thousands of chemicals, most of which have not been tested for their safety.
The amount of chemicals we are exposed to has been rising steadily over the last few decades and has reached a critical threshold that is significantly affecting our health and life expectancy.
A group of people can be exposed to the same amount of the same toxin but can all respond very differently.
Some of them can detoxify just fine, others can develop symptoms and illnesses because of their unique genetics or organ function. Each of us has an accumulated toxic burden - how our bodies respond to this exposure determines how much of a factor toxins will be on our health.
Your 'toxic burden' refers to the quantity of chemicals, heavy metals, pesticides, and herbicides that we accumulate during our lifetime through breathing, working, drinking and eating in our environments. Let's explore the implications of this exposure, and what you can do to protect your health.
Toxins Can Cause Disease
People erroneously think that they need to be involved in a chemical spill or work accident to be exposed to enough toxins to hurt them. Most often, toxins have been accumulating over time in an individual during 'normal activities' of daily life
In women, low dose exposure to toxic substances can contribute to many conditions, including fertility problems, preterm birth, low birth weight, pregnancy loss, type II diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, heart disease, developmental damage in children of pregnant women exposed, hormonal imbalances, autoimmune disease, thyroid problems, cancer, lower life expectancy, stroke, lack of energy, pain, weight gain, brain fog, headaches, and migraines.
In men, low dose exposure to toxic substances can contribute to many conditions, including type II diabetes, poor semen quality, stroke, fatigue, autoimmune disease, cancer, weight gain, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, lower life expectancy, and pain.
Our bodies have many organs that actively filter out toxins and remove them from the body, but there are ways that your body's ability to detoxify can be impaired.
When Normal Detoxification is Inadequate
This impairment can be due to the nature and quantity of the toxin. For example, heavy metals are highly toxic and must be carefully removed when found in large quantities. A relatively small amount can cause massive destruction.
If a key organ responsible for blood filtration (like your liver) is compromised due to lifestyle, disease or genetics, it can cause sluggish detoxification.
This slow detoxification leads to a buildup of toxins that would ordinarily be removed from the body. The buildup of these toxins in places like your liver and intestinal tract can lead to additional symptoms, like generalized pain, depression, food allergies and autoimmune symptoms.
Testing for Toxicity
Symptoms of toxicity can vary widely, and testing is necessary to confirm the presence of dangerous levels of things like mold, aluminum or mercury.
Most often, toxicity is a part of a wider context of medical testing - for example, a high exposure to mercury may have damaged intestinal lining resulting in food allergies, digestion problems, and chronic migraines.
Simply removing the mercury is only the first phase of healing, the intestinal lining must be healed, and the systemic inflammation caused by the toxic substance must be reduced.
While we all are detoxing low levels of harmful compounds all the time, a few factors can tip the balance from healthy detoxification to dangerous levels of accumulation.
The first step of prevention is to control, as much as we can, what we put in, on or around our bodies.
Sources of Toxins
Consuming pesticides and herbicides in the form of conventional produce can be incredibly damaging to your health. Despite the waves of information insisting that these residues are harmless, it is important that this phase of denial is a common theme in the history of medicine.
Whether it is the use of arsenic-laden wallpaper in the Victorian era or the dangers of smoking it can take decades for the balance of research to finally overpower the voracity of the industries who are made profitable by the use of these chemicals and products.
In the meantime, there are still experts as well as some doctors who insist that it 'does not matter' what you eat and what chemicals you are exposed to. The balance of research, however, heavily favors the idea that our slow absorption of the carcinogenic compounds in our environment leads to lower mortality, an increase of conditions and their severity, and is damaging to fetal development.
The good news is that there is a lot we can do to limit our exposures to these chemicals.
How to Limit Your Exposure to Toxins
Eating organic food as much as possible while reducing your consumption of foods that are conventionally grown is ideal for limiting exposure to pesticide residues. Certain 'healthy foods' like rice, have naturally high levels of compounds like arsenic - and even organic rice has levels of heavy metals and contaminants.
Most of these contaminants can be drastically reduced by preparing food properly (like soaking rice overnight).
Normal detoxification is greatly facilitated by fiber-rich foods which 'carry out' harmful chemicals while having other anti-inflammatory benefits. Whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fruits and vegetables are important sources of fiber in addition to supplying vitamins and minerals needed to sustain health.
Make note of the chemicals used in your cooking pots and pans, and be aware that many nonstick coatings are known to cause thyroid problems and other conditions. I use either a cast iron or french steel pan which I naturally season for a non-toxic nonstick coating.
Makeup & Cosmetics
It was only a few years ago when an FDA analysis confirmed dangerous levels of lead in 100% of lipstick tested. According to the study, as long as the lipsticks were 'used correctly', these levels of lead were 'probably safe.' The safe utilization of these lipsticks would require women not to lick their lips or eat anything while a thin layer of a known carcinogen sits (or rather absorbs) into her lips.
Makeup and cosmetics are still notoriously full of dubious ingredients that are correlated with disease. The chemicals in your makeup, cosmetics and hair treatments are unregulated.
Most of what you put on your body goes into your body. If you question the veracity of that statement think of how many medications can be administered as creams - they work - and they are in your bloodstream in a matter of minutes.
Carcinogenic chemicals that have been banned for more than a decade are winding up in umbilical cords. The babies in this study also had higher levels of carcinogenic compounds than the mother. This study has worrying implications about what level of prevention is possible after these chemicals enter our environment.
Our water, air, soil, and food are saturated with chemicals that we know to be harmful - and these chemicals are staying inside our bodies for much longer than we previously thought possible.
Making your own body lotion, moisturizer and face wash is a way many people are noticing beneficial changes in their skin while saving money and eliminating possible exposure to toxins. Swapping out your deodorant for an aluminum-free version is also a great first step.
There are a growing number of eco brands that are developing cosmetics using strict standards, and larger retailers like Sephora have begun to use a 'clean' seal to indicate products that do not use major chemicals implicated in health problems.
I often help my patients set up a list of product swaps in order of priority based on their individual needs and their health concerns.
Pollution, irritants, and allergens can cause and exacerbate many conditions. When we think of 'pollution' most of us picture a smog-laden skyline, but another large source of toxins comes from indoors.
This air indoor pollution can come from furniture, paints, building materials, aerosols, cleaning products, air fresheners, candles, dust, and mold.
The most effective way to limit your exposure is to purchase low toxin furniture, use no VOC / non-toxic paint and to not use harmful chemicals, artificial candles, artificial air fresheners or toxic cleaners in your home.
I do recommend a good quality air filter in your home as it can be remarkably helpful for seasonal allergies as well as household irritants like mold, dust and pet dander.
In addition to an air filter I also personally keep multiple plants in each room as each plant has remarkable abilities to remove harmful chemicals from the air.
How Functional Medicine Can Help Toxicity
The patients I treat are often those who have been told that their symptoms are unusual, complex, or do not 'fit' neatly into a diagnosis. Things like fatigue, stomach upset, food sensitivities, headaches, and autoimmune symptoms can all be signs of toxicity.
Most often, however, it is usually a combination of factors that have created a 'perfect storm' to cause symptoms and impede your health.
An Example Patient Experience
It could be that during a time of stress in your life, your cortisol and inflammation levels were significantly raised. This increase in inflammation causes you to have sleeping and digestive problems.
Your digestive problems (stomach cramps, GERD) are exacerbated by additional stress. You now experience headaches more often. Your gut lining is becoming increasingly inflamed to the point that you have begun to develop food sensitivities.
Chemicals and toxins that you could have previously detoxified are now building up in your body due to inflammation - your liver cannot keep up with the influx of material.
This is usually the point where I see patients - sometimes after they have been to many other specialists. The first step is a full functional medicine appointment to get an idea of the scope of the problem and give immediate lifestyle, diet and medicinal changes to immediately help symptoms.
We will confirm the findings through diagnostic testing and from there tailor an effective treatment plan.
Reversing Toxicity is the First Step
The above scenario is why functional medicine is so important. Our health status cannot be reduced to a single marker on a single test.
Just because you have gut inflammation does not mean a 'gut healing diet' will solve your health issue. Your gut inflammation may have a cause 'upstream,' like hormone imbalance, a poor diet, or a toxicity issue.
In order to treat the whole body - a clear picture of the body as a whole is needed. Once your stress level, diet, previous testing, family history, genetics (if applicable), and current blood testing is added to your individual symptoms, then the way forward becomes clear.
Simple interventions usually only treat one symptom or one aspect of a condition. Functional medicine is designed to be a holistic approach to a multifaceted individual, and toxicity, while an important metric, is still just one aspect of your complete health picture.
Read more about Functional Medicine and how it can help you