In 2016, a reported 3.4 billion pounds of chemicals were released to air, water, and land in the United States alone (source).
We really do live in a toxic world.
Especially because many chemicals — once introduced to the environment — rarely settle down and degrade peacefully. Instead, a great migration begins. Some take to the skies, others are swept away by rain water. Regardless, foreign substances of dubious safety are now ubiquitous from the ice caps to the equator.
To add insult to injury, some chemicals (called “persistent organic pollutants”) won't degrade in our generation, or the next. They will persist for decades to come, wreaking their havoc.
This may all seem rather vague to you. Just what are these chemicals, and how bad can they possibly be?
A Brief Survey Of Environmental Toxins
Here are just a few of the many chemicals we now know or suspect to be dangerous, yet are still used (or created as incidental byproducts) in devastatingly large quantities throughout the world.
Neurotoxin, carcinogen, and non-biodegradable. Considered a persistent organic pollutant. Banned in the United States but still used in developing countries as a pesticide. Found in meat, fish, milk, and eggs. (Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, pages 96, 257.)
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
Neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and non-biodegradable. Considered to be persistent organic pollutants. Banned in the United States but still widely used in electrical insulators, paints, varnish, and plastic. Found especially in the Hudson River and Great Lakes.
(Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, pages 75, 143, 148-149.)
Carcinogens, teratogens, immuno-suppressants, endocrine disruptors, and non-biodegradable. Considered to be persistent organic pollutants, dioxins are ubiquitous in air, water, and soil. They aren't manufactured intentionally, but created as a by-product of industrial processes, including municipal and medical incinerators that burn chlorine-containing paper and plastic. Both bleaching and cremation release dioxin.
(Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, page 257.)
Carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and neurotoxins. Discovered in Nazi Germany to be used for chemical warfare, then later re-purposed as insecticides. Now ubiquitous in the food supply. (Source.)
Lead, mercury, and cadmium are neurotoxic at any dose. (Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, pages 34, 49, 113-118.)
Endocrine disruptor. Present in drinking water and soil in at least 49 states, and also found in milk, lettuce, urine, and breast milk. Since it is used in rocket fuel (hence the title of this post) and explosives, airports and military bases are the greatest sources of exposure. (Source and source.)
This petrochemical is an aggressive carcinogen. It spontaneously forms in soft drinks when ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate combine. It is also found in gasoline, car exhaust, cigarette smoke, etc. (Source and source.)
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Endocrine disruptor even at low levels. Found in many plastics, food cans, dental sealants and composites, and receipt paper. (Source.)
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
Immunotoxin, hepatotoxin, likely carcinogen, and non-biodegradable. Used to make Teflon. Commonly found in blood, cord blood, and breast milk. A precursor to PFOA is in paper plates, dental floss, candy wrappers, leather, and more. (Source and source.)
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
Endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. Since they are produced by burning organic matter, things like tobacco, cigarettes, and even grilled burgers produce PAHs. Structurally similar to DDT. (Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, page 187.)
Endocrine disruptor and implicated in uterine, prostate, and breast cancer. Banned in the European Union but still the herbicide of choice in the United States for corn, sorghum, and citrus fruits. It's also used on evergreen farms (where people buy Christmas trees) and in parks and lawns. Since it can travel in rainwater up to 600 miles from point of application, it is a major contaminant of drinking water in the Midwest. (Source.)
How We Are Exposed To Toxins
From leather to dental sealants, you may have noticed the wide array of materials that play host to toxins. These chemicals enter our bodies when we eat, drink, touch, or breathe. Whether ingested, inhaled, or applied topically, it doesn't matter! The human body readily absorbs them.
Thus, these chemicals are also found in breast milk, placentas, amniotic fluid, and blood (including cord blood). Even unborn babies — the most sheltered and vulnerable of us all — aren't safe. (Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, pages 34, 75, 122, 128, 251-253, 262.)
(A quick note on breast milk: If contaminated, does that mean babies shouldn't drink it? Well, no. Formula and other mammalian milks are contaminated, too. Even if impure, breast milk still provides babies with the proper nutrients to be able to effectively detoxify the contaminants — see below. So while expectant and lactating mothers should certainly do their best to minimize toxic exposures, there's no need to avoid breast milk itself.)
The most common exposures to these chemicals include…
- drinking tap water
- eating processed foods (food additives count as environmental toxins)
- eating conventionally-grown foods
- working a job that involves toxins (pesticide applicators, dry cleaners, service station attendants, janitors, etc.)
- living or working near high traffic areas
Toxic Load = External Toxins + Internal Toxins
Lest you come away from this discussion thinking that the outside environment is the only thing out to kill us, let me set the record straight. 😉
There are also endogenous toxins — toxins from within our bodies, like ones released from pathogenic bacteria — and these contribute to our total toxic load as well.
Each of us carry a toxic load, or burden, which varies over time. This is our body's sum total of external (exogenous) and internal (endogenous) toxins at any given moment.
What Are The Symptoms Of Toxic Build-Up?
Symptoms of toxin accumulation vary depending on the person, yet commonly include…
- muscle aches and pains
- skin conditions
- chronic infections
Suffice it to say, many of us can lay claim to one or two, if not more, of these complaints. So what are we to do?
Detoxification: From Eaten To Excreted
Even before the advent of industrial chemicals, the human body met with countless foreign substances over the course of its day-to-day. Thankfully, it was designed with a defense mechanism in mind: detoxification.
In essence, anything that moves substances through and out of your body is a detoxification process. If you regularly sweat, urinate, or have bowel movements — congratulations! You're detoxing!
On a more in-depth level, however, let's talk about the process of detoxification, a.k.a. biotransformation.
This process transforms fat-soluble toxins, drugs, hormones, etc., into harmless water-soluble molecules that can be eliminated through urine or feces. (If you drink plenty of water, your body excretes water-soluble foreign substances almost immediately via the kidneys.)
Whether a phthalate, prescription drug, or bio-identical estrogen, detox is the same. Once these substances enter the body, they all undergo metabolism — mostly in the liver, but in other organs too (skin, lymph, kidneys).
How does this happen?
Once ingested, fat-soluble chemicals travel through the intestinal tract and eventually to the liver. There, special enzymes await to transform them into reactive intermediaries. This is Phase I of detox, and it's one important step along the way to excretion, but it comes with a cost.
Reactive intermediaries are sometimes even more dangerous than the original substance. Phase I can convert pro-carcinogenic substances into actual carcinogens, or (because it's not all bad) pro-drugs into drugs and pro-vitamins into vitamins.
In Phase II of detox, other special enzymes attach a water-soluble part to these reactive intermediary molecules. They exchange their volatility for bulkiness and inertia. Biotransformation now complete, the newly water-soluble chemicals ship off for excretion via feces. (Source.)
Where Detoxification Goes Wrong
Unfortunately, not all enzymes were created equally. Some are sluggish, some are frenetic. Others are completely normal.
Ideally, however, your Phase I enzymes work neither too quickly or too slowly. If they stray too far to either extreme, you risk toxin accumulation — either in the form of reactive intermediaries that overwhelm the Phase II enzymes and run rampant in the body, or in the form of the original fat-soluble toxins.
Many factors affect Phase I enzyme activity, including foods, drugs, toxins, and an individual's genes. Some people have single nucleotide polymorphisms which, simply put, mean that one or more of their enzymes function at an abnormal speed. Additionally, some toxins cause enzymes to either work more quickly (induction) or more slowly (inhibition).
This can be good or bad depending on the situation. To explain, here's an example…
The liver metabolizes both caffeine and cigarette smoke with the same enzyme. Cigarette smoke, in addition to being processed by this enzyme, induces it to work faster.
If we were dealing only with caffeine, that'd be great! The faster your body metabolizes caffeine, the less jittery you feel. But this enzyme also transforms pro-carcinogenic chemicals in cigarette smoke into carcinogens… Ergo, induction of this enzyme is bad.
Smokers often have a high tolerance for caffeine because cigarette smoke causes it to be metabolized quickly. Yet high activity of this enzyme is associated with colon cancer, especially in smokers, because of the carcinogens it creates.
To recap: For optimum detoxification, we want to support the proper functioning of Phase I enzymes so they work neither too quickly nor too slowly.
As for Phase II enzymes, we want them working as efficiently as possible so they can stabilize reactive intermediaries and get them out of the body stat. (Source.)
7 Ways To Detox Naturally
Now that we know how our bodies naturally detoxify, how do we support it? Here are 7 ways to detox naturally:
#1 — Reduce Your Toxic Load
Our bodies have an amazing capacity to heal and restore themselves, but they do have limits. If your system is overburdened, you won't be able to detoxify much, if anything at all. Pare down your exposures until your liver and other detox organs can once again stay on top of it all. Here are some ideas:
Eat organic. One study found that organophosphate levels in children's urine virtually disappeared after five days of eating an organic diet (source).
Eat down the food chain. Some toxins bioaccumulate or biomagnify (e.g., DDT, dioxins, PCBs, PBDEs, mercury). In other words, they enter the food chain at the bottom, and grow in concentration with each ascending link. The lower down the food chain we eat, the less contaminants we ingest. That isn't to say that we should stop eating meat, dairy, and eggs… just don't forget the power of plant nutrition, too. (Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, pages 136-137, 250.)
Take walks in the country instead of along busy highways roads to avoid inhaling car exhaust.
Open your windows and air the house out as often as possible to reduce indoor air pollution (source).
Fill your house with plants. Certain house plants are not only easy to care for — but they filter out toxic chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde, too (source)! Aim to have about 1 plant per 100 square feet of house.
#2 — Eat A Balanced Diet Of Macro- & Micronutrients
It almost goes without saying, but our liver can't do all the work of detoxification by itself! It requires proper nutrition, especially protein, vitamins, and minerals. The enzymes of detox need energy to be created, energy to function, and the nutritive tools necessary to transform toxins into harmless compounds.
You provide this by eating a balanced diet of whole foods, and specifically these nutrients…
For healthy functioning, Phase I enzymes need:
- Vitamin C
- B vitamins, including B2, B3, B6, B9, and B12
- flavonoids (antioxidants from fruits, vegetables, and some spices)
Additionally, Phase II enzymes need:
- plenty of amino acids (glycine, taurine, glutamine, cysteine, methionine)
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B9 (folate)
Finally, certain supplements, herbs, and foods encourage Phase II detox as well, including:
- N-acetyl L-cysteine (NAC)
- milk thistle
- epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) — found in green tea leaves
- sulforaphane — found in cruciferous vegetables including broccoli and especially broccoli sprouts
- curcumin — found in turmeric or in supplement form
#3 — Heal Your Gut
Healthy detoxification is just one more reason (among many) to heal your gut! Your gastrointestinal tract must make sufficient amounts of digestive agents (amylase, hydrochloric acid, pancreatic enzymes) to absorb the nutrition from your food. A diseased gut lacks this ability, and we've already discussed how proper nutrition supports proper detox.
Second, a permeable intestine (“leaky gut”) allows toxins and other undigested macromolecules to enter the bloodstream freely, significantly increasing an individual's toxic load.
Finally, dysbiosis increases levels of an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase, which re-activates toxins and hormones after the liver has already inactivated and metabolized them. As these water-soluble, inert molecules pass through the gut on their way to be excreted, this enzyme reverts them back to their toxic state so they can return to bodily circulation.
In the case of hormones, beta-glucuronidase re-activates estrogen, contributing to conditions such as estrogen dominance. (Source.)
#4 — Have Regular Bowel Movements
Yes, this is important! If you're not having regular bowel movements, toxins can re-absorb into the body from the gut. What do I mean by regular? It varies from person to person, yet anywhere from three bowel movements a day to three a week is considered normal (source). Stool should be smooth, soft, and easy to pass.
If you need help establishing regularity, make an effort to eat more fiber (preferably from vegetables) which bulks up stool to increase frequency, as well as binding to toxins to aid excretion (source).
#5 — Sweat!
Whether or not sweating helps us detox is controversial, but several studies support the idea that when our liver and kidneys have too many toxins to handle, we can actually excrete some toxins via our pores! These toxins include BPA, phthalates, PCBs, certain flame retardants, and heavy metals. (Source, source, source.)
#6 — Dry Brush Daily
Dry brushing dates back hundreds of years — all the way to Russia and Scandinavia. It involves using a brush with stiff bristles in sweeping motions across the skin to stimulate the lymphatic system.
We haven't talked much about the lymphatic system yet, so if you need a refresher, here we go: The lymphatic system transports fluid through the body. Similar to veins, it does this by moving fluid back to the bloodstream from the body's various tissues. But first, it filters the fluid through lymph nodes to remove any damaged cells, cancer cells, bacteria, viruses, or… toxins. In this way, it too is a system of detoxification, and helps protect the body from infection. (Source.)
If you're so inclined, dry brush daily before your shower. To learn how to dry brush, check out Lesson 3 in our Women's Health eCourse.
#7 — Heal Lyme Disease & Other Infections
Before I conclude, it's worthwhile to address one final point: infectious agents decrease the body's ability to handle toxin exposure. According to animal studies, Lyme disease sets up camp in lymph nodes, inciting an inflammatory response and degrading their ability to filter toxins. (Source.)
Some infections even seem to hold on to heavy metals such as mercury and lead to protect themselves from antibiotics (source).
So to fully unlock our body's detoxification potential, we must address underlying infections. The best way to do this is to find a functional medicine practitioner who can work with you to heal your body.
As you delve into the topic of environmental toxins, it's easy to get discouraged. After all, we live in a world where industry practices have been slowly poisoning us and our children for decades now.
The good news is that we can give our bodies the resources to cleanse and renew themselves. It doesn't solve every problem — some toxins persist despite our best efforts — but it's a start.
For other detox resources, check out these articles:
- Reconsidering the “Cleanse”: Why Kits, Powders, Fasts, & Pills May Not Be for You
- Reconsidering the “Cleanse”: 7 Easy Ways to Support Daily Detox
- Detoxing With Traditional Foods: A Nourishing Soup For Gentle, Full-Body Cleansing
- Mercury Detoxification & Healing Cavities Naturally
How do you support your body's natural detoxification systems?
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