Environmental toxins are everywhere. We might not be able to see them, but they are present in almost every area of life. Toxins are present in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. They are also in our mattresses, beauty products, toiletries, and cleaning supplies. They are likely unavoidable because even if you are mindful of these toxins, it's very difficult to escape them altogether.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are approximately 83,000 chemicals in our environment. While this may seem overwhelming, we have luckily evolved to have a detoxification system built into each of us to help our bodies process and eliminate these toxins effectively and efficiently.
When our detoxification pathways are functioning optimally, these toxins leave our bodies with minimal to no harm done. If you are wondering how everyday toxins affect your health, functional medicine can help you understand how to reduce exposures, test for current toxic load, and optimize detoxification.
What Are Environmental Toxins?
Environmental toxins are substances that can cause harm to and negatively affect our health. These toxins can be found in manufactured chemicals, naturally occurring compounds, or even certain organisms like some bacteria. Toxins become most hazardous to our health when they enter our bodies and bloodstream.
Environmental toxins are genuinely everywhere. We encounter them daily while eating, drinking, breathing, bathing, or topically through our skin. They are also commonly found around the house in most commercial cleaning products and plastics. Not all toxins are equally toxic, so it is crucial to understand your current toxic exposures and how efficiently your body detoxifies.
What Are Toxin Exposure Signs & Symptoms?
Sometimes, an acute reaction to environmental exposures can occur. Typically this happens after a sudden significant exposure to a chemical or heavy metal, such as a child swallowing old lead paint chips or a chemical accident at a factory. These acute symptoms consist of the following:
- Brain and neurological symptoms - feeling confused, feeling faint or losing consciousness, memory loss, behavioral changes, tingling or numbness
- Digestive symptoms - nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea
- Organ damage - including damage to the kidneys, liver, lungs, nails, or bones
- Miscellaneous symptoms - dehydration, anemia, miscarriages, or premature labor
More often, signs and symptoms of environmental toxin exposures occur chronically after prolonged encounters. These signs and symptoms vary depending on the type of toxin exposure.
Most Common Environmental Toxins & How They Affect Our Health
- Pesticides and herbicides (including glyphosate) - These chemicals can be found predominantly in weed-killers and are also sprayed on non-organic crops such as many fruits, vegetables, wheat, oats, and corn. They are considered endocrine disrupting because of their effect on hormones. They are also linked to chronic fatigue, gut dysfunction, immune dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and brain/mental concerns such as ADHD, autism, and learning disabilities.
- Phthalates - These are a group of chemicals with two primary industry uses: to soften plastics and prolong the smell of fragrances. They can be found in soft plastics such as plastic bags, plastic clingwrap, kid's toys, scented candles, air fresheners, and many personal care products that list "fragrance" in the ingredients. Phthalates have been associated with reproductive concerns, various cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic fatigue, depression, and obesity.
- Parabens - These are a group of chemicals used in various personal care products, such as shampoos/conditioners, lotions, and makeup, to prevent bacteria and mold growth. Also considered endocrine disruptors, they have been associated with infertility and are possibly carcinogenic. They are also associated with obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
- Bisphenol A (BPA) - This is a type of plasticizer, which means that it makes plastics more flexible. It is found in food packaging, the lining of canned food, plastic water bottles, baby bottles, kid's toys, and even receipts. It is another endocrine disruptor wreaking havoc on the reproductive systems of women and men. It is also associated with heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) - These chemicals are used as flame retardants. They are used ubiquitously in furniture, mattresses, carpets, pillows, baby/kid clothing, and baby/kid car seats. Because these chemicals are found on many household furnishings, household dust also notoriously contains these chemicals. These chemicals have been associated with liver, kidney, and nervous system damage.
- Organophosphates - This group of chemicals can be found in pesticides, flame retardants, and plasticizers. They are commonly sprayed on specific crops, such as grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and cotton. They can also be found in furniture, clothing, and even the water supply due to run-off from farms that use them for crops. These are known to cause depression and are associated with other behavioral and learning disabilities. They are also likely neurotoxic and possibly carcinogenic.
- Formaldehyde - This chemical is used predominantly as a preservative and an antibacterial agent. While many typically picture this chemical only in funeral homes, it is also commonly found in furniture, carpets, mattresses, building materials such as particleboard, and miscellaneous products such as nail polish. It can also be detected in some air pollution. Acutely it can be irritating to the skin, lungs, and eyes. However, it has also been suggested to be carcinogenic in long-term exposure.
- Perfluorooctanoic acid (Teflon) - This chemical is best known as a coating for non-stick surfaces such as cooking pans. However, it is also used for stain-resistant clothing and is used as a flame retardant. Health concerns after exposure include reproductive and hormonal disruptions, liver dysfunction, immune system issues, cholesterol concerns, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
- Heavy metals - While these are found in nature in our air, food, and water supply, certain heavy metals can cause health issues and accumulate in the brain, liver, and kidneys. Heavy metals likely play a role in certain conditions such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, reproductive system dysfunction, heart diseases and diabetes, mineral imbalances, and lower IQ in children. The most commonly found heavy metals are: Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, Mercury, Copper, and Chromium
- Mold - Though not a manufactured chemical like the others discussed, certain strains of fungi can be quite toxic to human health. Mold is found in water-damaged buildings. It is also found in foods stored long-term in silos, such as corn, in the form of mycotoxins. Mold has been shown to cause respiratory conditions such as asthma, depression, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and systemic inflammation.
How to Test for Toxin Exposure
Testing for various toxins is an essential first step in identifying exposures. The Environmental Toxins Panel by Vibrant Wellness is a great place to start. It comprehensively examines 39 toxicants giving you a well-rounded look into possible toxin exposures from our environment.
Testing specifically for heavy metal exposure is also imperative when understanding your total toxic burden. The Hair Elements test by Doctor's Data analyzes hair samples and provides information regarding recent and ongoing exposure to various heavy metals. Heavy metals could be 200 to 300 times more highly concentrated in hair than in blood or urine, which is why this test is clinically essential.
Understanding your toxic exposures is vital. However, another important test to consider is The Chemical Immune Reactivity Screen by Cyrex, also known as Array 11. This test measures the immune response (antibody response) to chemicals rather than just identifying the chemicals. This difference is important when considering the actual health effects of various chemical exposures.
Lastly, a thorough evaluation of the liver's health is warranted because the liver is arguably the most important organ for detoxification. The Hepatic Function Panel by Vibrant America is a great comprehensive choice.
How to Detox Your Body From Overexposure to Toxins
Our bodies detoxify for us every day through distinct detoxification pathways. Therefore "detoxing" isn't necessarily something we have to actively "do" to our bodies because it's already happening. The liver uses 2 phases of detoxification to process the toxins into water-soluble forms. Then in the 3rd phase, it is the job of our GI tract, kidneys, skin, and lymphatic system to eliminate the toxins from the body. When this system is optimized, toxins are processed and released with minimal damage. However, when these pathways are overburdened, we are more likely to see the ill effects of the toxin exposures.
Exposure to toxins is, unfortunately, inevitable. However, the best approach is to gently support those detoxification pathways rather than attempting an extreme "cleanse" or "detox," which may be too intense for an overburdened liver.
Reducing toxic exposures is a great way to reduce the overall burden on the detoxification pathways. Using air purifiers at home or work, using water filters for all drinking, cooking, and bathing water, eating organic food whenever possible, and switching to less toxic personal care products are all important ways to reduce the toxic load on the body. The Environmental Working Group has excellent resources for organic food shopping (Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen) and understanding the toxicity of various personal care products (Skin Deep).
Liver support is required for healthy optimal detoxification. The phases of liver detoxification need various vitamins and minerals to function correctly. After the liver is supported, it is crucial to support the different organs of elimination to ensure that the toxins clear the body efficiently. Specifically, daily bowel movements and a healthy gut are necessary to eliminate toxins. However, a thorough detox protocol gently supports all of the organs of elimination, which include the colon, kidneys, skin, and lymph, without creating more stress or burden on them.
Certain nutrients have been shown to help support phases 1 and 2 of liver detoxification. Cruciferous vegetables can alter liver enzymes in favor of optimal liver detoxification. Berries, rooibos tea, and celery have also been shown to modulate liver enzymes and may be supportive. Allium vegetables (such as garlic, onions, leeks, etc.), apiaceous vegetables (such as carrots, parsnips, celery, and parsley), and grapefruit have all shown clinical significance in enhancing liver detoxification.
To support elimination through the colon, our primary organ of elimination, consistent healthy bowel movements are essential. If gut symptoms are present, working with a functional medicine practitioner to heal the gut should be the first step.
Certain supplements may also be helpful. Resveratrol has been shown to modulate enzymes required for phase 2 liver detoxification making the process more efficient. Quercetin is hepatoprotective, which means it protects the liver and may indirectly benefit liver detoxification by relieving some of its burdens. Another helpful supplement is Lycopene, which has been shown in several studies to induce antioxidant and detoxifying enzymes of phase 2.
Herbs can also help assist with detoxification support. Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is an herb that has been used for hundreds of years to support, heal, and benefit liver function. The active component, known as silymarin, may inhibit the binding of toxins to the liver cells. Turmeric is another herb with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-fibrogenic, and anti-carcinogenic activities. The active component curcumin has been suggested to confer therapeutic efficacy against different environmental or occupational hepatic toxins.
Some lifestyle additions can significantly assist in the detoxification process. Smoking and alcohol consumption limit the liver's ability to detoxify optimally. Discontinuing both would be best for detoxification improvements.
Dry brushing is a therapy using a soft brush against the skin to exfoliate and unclog pores, making it easier to sweat and eliminate toxins through the skin. It can also increase blood circulation and lymph drainage, which is helpful for overall detoxification. Saunas are also a safe and effective way to mobilize heavy metals and chemicals by inducing detoxification via sweat. Aerobic and resistance exercises have been shown to protect the liver, reduce fatty liver, and support healthy detoxification. Lastly, hydration is vital for ensuring optimal kidney function for elimination via the urine.
Toxins are everywhere and an unfortunate part of our daily lives. However, this doesn't mean we are doomed to suffer the consequences of toxic exposures. Knowing where toxins are and how to reduce them as much as possible in our environments is a powerful step in the right direction. If you are unsure about your toxic exposures, functional labs can help detect current levels and evaluate how your body reacts to those toxins. If toxins are present, you can use nutrients, herbs, and various therapies to safely and gently reduce the toxic load.
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