Toxin exposure is a significant concern as modern lifestyles and industrial practices favor the use of environmental pollutants and contaminants. The country's vast industrial activities, agricultural practices, transportation systems, and consumer habits contribute to the presence of toxins in the environment, posing potential risks to human health. Understanding the sources, effects, and preventive measures surrounding toxin exposure is crucial in safeguarding public health.
Common Toxins in Everyday Life
The term "environmental toxin" encompasses any substance or agent encountered in the environment that has the potential to cause harm to humans and other living organisms. Toxins can be manufactured or naturally occurring substances that lead to adverse health effects, especially with prolonged exposure. Whether you realize it or not, we are exposed to toxins daily through the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the cosmetics we apply to our skin. (1, 2)
Here are some of the most common environmental toxins and how we are exposed to them:
These include particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). We are exposed to air pollutants by inhaling polluted air, particularly in areas with high levels of industrial emissions, traffic congestion, or poor ventilation. (3)
Studies performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate that indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air. Indoor environments harbor many airborne pollutants, including VOCs from cleaning products, building materials, and furnishings; allergens; radon gas; and tobacco smoke.
Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)
EDCs are synthetic chemicals that can interfere with the normal functioning of the endocrine system, which regulates hormones in the body. Common EDCs include bisphenol A (BPA), parabens, phthalates, and certain flame retardants. Exposure can occur through ingesting contaminated food or water, contact through skin, and inhaling dust or fumes. (2, 12)
Metals like lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and chromium can contaminate the environment through industrial activities, mining, waste disposal, and certain consumer products. Exposure can occur through inhalation, ingesting contaminated food or water, or contact with contaminated soil or dust.
Mycotoxins are toxic compounds produced by certain species of toxic molds. Mycotoxin exposure can occur through inhalation of airborne spores, consumption of contaminated food or beverages, or direct contact with contaminated surfaces. Several hundred mycotoxins have been identified, most commonly including aflatoxin, ochratoxin A, trichothecenes, and zearalenone.
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
These are toxic chemicals that were widely used in industrial production after World War II that had unforeseen effects on human health and the environment. POPs persist in the environment and can bioaccumulate in the food chain. Examples of POPs include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and certain pesticides like DDT. Human exposure to POPs primarily occurs through consuming contaminated animal products, such as fish and meat. (5)
Over 800 pesticides are registered for use in the United States. These are chemical substances used to control and kill pests in agriculture and homes. Pesticides can enter the body through direct skin contact, inhalation of sprayed particles, contaminated food or water, or even indirect exposure from surface residues. (4)
Health Risks Associated With Exposure to These Toxins
According to Dr. Joe Pizzorno, ND, the eight ways in which toxins harm the body include poisoning vital enzymes; displacing structural minerals; directly inducing damage to organs; damaging DNA; modifying gene expression; inhibiting cell signaling by damaging cell membranes; disrupting hormonal balance and signals; and impairing the body's ability to detoxify.
Environmental toxins can affect every system and organ in the body, contributing to the development of cancers, cardiovascular disease, developmental problems, hormonal imbalances, neurological disorders, obesity, reproductive abnormalities, and respiratory diseases (6, 7). The Global Alliance on Health and Population (GAHP) estimates that pollution is responsible for nine million deaths globally each year, and two million of these are explicitly attributed to chemical exposures.
Symptoms of Toxin Exposure
The symptoms of toxin exposure can vary widely depending on the toxin involved, the level and duration of exposure, and individual susceptibility. Additionally, different toxins can affect various systems and organs in the body, leading to a diverse range of symptoms. (2, 8)
- Cardiovascular symptoms: irregular heartbeat, chest pain, palpitations, and changes in blood pressure
- Endocrine symptoms: hormonal imbalances, disruptions in menstrual cycles, fertility issues, and thyroid dysfunction
- Gastrointestinal symptoms: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramps, loss of appetite, leaky gut
- General symptoms: fatigue, weakness, unintentional changes in weight, trouble sleeping
- Immunological symptoms: allergic reactions, hypersensitivity, and frequent infections
- Musculoskeletal symptoms: muscle aches, joint pain, and stiffness
- Neurological symptoms: headaches, dizziness, confusion, memory problems, difficulty concentrating, mood changes, tremors, seizures
- Respiratory symptoms: coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, sore throat, nasal congestion
- Skin symptoms: rashes, itching, redness, hives
Why Do Some People React Stronger to Toxin Exposure vs Others?
The adverse effects of environmental toxins on human health can vary widely. The severity of the health effects heavily depends upon the type, concentration, and duration of toxic exposure. Individual susceptibility is also determined by genetics, which influences the ability to break down and eliminate toxins from the body. Additionally, the overall health status of the individual, considering factors like age, diet, and concurrent medical conditions, will influence susceptibility to the adverse effects of toxic exposure. (9)
Functional Medicine Labs That Can Help Individualize Detox Protocols
Specialty lab tests are beneficial in confirming expected toxic exposures, quantifying the body's toxic load, and evaluating the body's ability to efficiently and effectively detoxify and eliminate toxins.
Environmental Toxin Testing
Toxin testing is a crucial first step in identifying and confirming toxic exposure. The choice of test will depend on the patient's history and the doctor's preference. Functional labs can measure and quantify exposure to molds, chemicals, and heavy metals through urine, blood, and hair analysis.
Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (CMP)
A CMP includes important markers of liver and kidney function - critical organs responsible for effectively detoxifying and eliminating toxins from the body.
Comprehensive Stool Analysis
The intestines are one of the primary organs responsible for toxin elimination. Intestinal inflammation and dysbiosis can impair gastrointestinal function, causing slow elimination and increased reabsorption of toxins back into circulation. A comprehensive stool analysis can help identify causes of a sluggish gut to improve toxin elimination.
How Do Integrative Medicine Practitioners Explain Detoxification?
The body possesses distinct systems to neutralize and eliminate toxins - collectively, these pathways are called "detoxification." The liver is the body's primary detoxification organ, using various pathways to process toxins into less reactive and water-soluble forms so that they can be excreted from the body. These pathways, called Phase I and Phase II of biotransformation, require specific enzymes, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and proteins to function optimally. Once the liver has successfully created water-soluble end-products, it is the job of the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, skin, and lymphatics to eliminate toxins from the body. (2, 8)
Detoxification and elimination pathways can become sluggish and overburdened with chronic toxic exposure, nutrient deficiencies, and disease. Therefore, detoxification support may be required for some individuals through an integrative approach, encompassing lifestyle modifications to reduce exposure, diet, supplements, and other complementary modalities. (2, 8)
Dietary Approaches to Detoxification
Food contaminants are one of the biggest sources of toxins for most people. Foods can become contaminated by fertilizers, heavy metals in soil, herbicides and pesticides, plastics, and food additives through their growing, processing, and storage. Therefore, making savvy dietary choices can significantly reduce toxic exposures. (10)
Eat a primarily organic, plant-based diet. If organic is not possible, choose foods according to the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen guidelines. Avoid ultra-processed foods with additives, synthetic preservatives, and those packaged with plastic and BPA. You can also limit exposure to chemicals by eliminating your use of plastic Tupperware containers and water bottles. (10)
Avoid cooking meat using high-temperature methods, such as pain frying or grilling directly over an open flame, which can form cancer-forming heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Instead, use stainless steel or ceramic cookware to boil, sautee, and bake foods at lower temperatures (10, 11).
Incorporating certain foods can support the liver, gut, and kidneys to optimize detoxification and elimination pathways. Gut-friendly foods are high in fiber, probiotics, and prebiotics to support a healthy microbiome and regular bowel movements; these include whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fermented foods. An anti-inflammatory diet low in processed red meat and sugar and staying well-hydrated by drinking filtered water will support kidney function (10). Foods such as cruciferous vegetables, turmeric, garlic, salmon, berries, and leafy green vegetables will support the liver's Phase I and II enzymatic pathways. (1, 2)
Medically-Approved Detox Programs
A medical-based detox program may be recommended by and performed under the care of a qualified healthcare practitioner. Medical-based detox programs combine nutrition with medical-grade supplements to support the neutralization and elimination of unwanted wastes, chemicals, and other toxins from the body without increasing the burden on the essential detoxification organs. (8)
Supplements and Herbs Used in Medically-Approved Detox Programs
Dietary and herbal supplements can help nourish the body and enhance its natural detoxification and elimination processes, providing essential nutrients and anti-inflammatory support. Here are some of the most commonly utilized evidence-based supplements a functional medicine provider may recommend.
Glutathione is a potent antioxidant and serves an essential purpose for liver Phase I and II detoxification. Adequate glutathione levels are crucial for optimal liver function and mitigating systemic inflammation.
Milk thistle seed has been used for centuries to support and heal the liver (2). Milk thistle's active constituents, silymarin and silybin, are antioxidative, reduce liver damage, and restore glutathione levels (8).
Pyridoxine (vitamin B6), folate (vitamin B9), and cobalamin (vitamin B12) are essential cofactors for Phase I and Phase II liver enzymes. In phase II liver detoxification, methylated B vitamins are important methyl donors for methylation pathways. Inadequate methylation is linked to increased oxidative stress, risk of disease, and glutathione depletion. (1)
The antioxidative properties of vitamin C help to quench free radicals produced during Phase I liver detoxification and have demonstrated therapeutic effects in treating liver disease and optimizing liver and gallbladder function. Additionally, vitamin C plays an important role in metabolizing and eliminating heavy metals. (1)
Environmental Toxin Exposure Reduction
According to the EWG, the number one way to reduce toxic exposures in your home is to have a good water filter. Filtering water prevents exposure when drinking water, washing produce, cleaning, and bathing. Use the EWG's Tap Water Guide to learn about the contaminants in your tap water and which type of filter will best serve your needs and budget.
Additional easy ways to prevent indoor toxin exposure include installing central air filtration or using HEPA air filters, avoiding smoking inside or near open windows, removing shoes before entering the house, and cleaning the house regularly (10).
Reduce mold exposure by identifying and removing water damage, remediating mold-contaminated areas using a professional company, and maintaining proper humidity levels in the home with appropriate ventilation systems.
Reduce exposure to workplace chemicals by wearing personal protective equipment, such as gloves, masks, coveralls, and respirators. Shower and change clothes before leaving work to avoid carrying contaminants into your home.
Personal Care Products and Cosmetics
Personal care products and cosmetics can be a significant source of EDCs. Applying synthetic chemicals and fragrances directly on your skin daily can quickly lead to toxin bioaccumulation. Using natural products and the EWG's Skin Deep resource can help make the transition to nontoxic personal care products. (12)
Home and Cleaning Products
Many cleaning supplies on the market are produced with chemicals linked to numerous health concerns and diseases. Common chemicals - just to name a few - include ammonia, ethylene glycol monobutyl acetate, sodium hypochlorite (bleach), and trisodium phosphate. The EWG-Verified Cleaning Products guide is a great place to start to find nontoxic cleaning products. Additionally, using ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, and essential oils to home-make products can work just as well as the commercially available supplies.
Exercise, Movement, and Sweating for Toxin Elimination
Aerobic and resistance exercise support healthy detoxification by increasing nutrient and oxygen blood flow to vital detoxification and elimination organs, reducing liver disease, and enhancing overall health and vitality. (2)
Sweating is increasingly being recognized as an effective way to eliminate heavy metals and chemicals through the skin. Saunas and dry brushing can improve lymphatic drainage, increase blood circulation, and make it easier to sweat. (2)
Massage Therapy for Lymphatic Drainage and Toxin Elimination
The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that moves toxins, cellular debris, and excess fluid through the body to lymph nodes for filtration before returning to circulation. Optimal lymphatic flow is important for a healthy immune system, fluid balance, and waste elimination. Lymphatic stagnation impairs these processes, contributing to edema and inflammation.
Manual lymphatic drainage techniques (MLDTs) utilize gentle, rhythmic movements to improve lymphatic circulation, reduce fluid retention, and enhance the lymphatic system's ability to eliminate waste and toxins. However, further research is needed to fully understand the specific benefits and mechanisms of lymphatic massage and other MLDTs in supporting the body's inherent detoxification processes. (13)
While toxic exposure has unfortunately become unavoidable, there are steps that can be taken to proactively reduce exposure and prevent its negative health consequences. Working with a functional doctor specializing in environmental medicine can help you determine your toxin burden and establish an effective integrative plan to support the body's detoxification and elimination pathways.
Lab Tests in This Article
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3. Washington State Department of Health. Sources of Outdoor Air Pollution and Health Impacts. Washington State Department of Health. https://doh.wa.gov/community-and-environment/air-quality/outdoor-air
4. NIEHS. (2018). Pesticides. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/pesticides/index.cfm
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12. Christie, J. (2022, June 9). 8 Products That Contain Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (And How To Avoid Them). Rupa Health. https://www.rupahealth.com/post/how-chemicals-are-effecting-our-hormones
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