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Toxic Exposures and Mental Health: Exploring Environmental Factors as Root Causes

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Toxic Exposures and Mental Health: Exploring Environmental Factors as Root Causes

Unfortunately, toxic exposure has become unavoidable as we are exposed to toxic environments from our air, water, food, soil, products, and even our social surroundings. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost everyone is exposed to air pollutants that exceed their guidelines. Increased toxic exposure is a growing health concern as it can wreak havoc on our health, including our mental health. Many environmental toxins are considered neurotoxic and can create long-lasting mental health issues. 

Other considerations are socially toxic environments that can influence mental health. Exploring toxic exposures as root causes of mental health disorders is vital as there is an increased prevalence of mental illness. Approximately 20% of U.S. adults may experience some variation of it annually. Mental health disorders can have considerable adverse effects on daily life. The intent of this article is to dive into some of the causes and discuss intervention options to help reduce the negative impacts and health consequences that may arise.


What Are Toxic Exposures?

We are subject to a wide range of toxic exposures including chemicals, biological agents, and social aspects, that affect our body and mind. Toxicity occurs by continuous exposure to any of these environmental agents. Chemical toxic exposure can come from the air, water, soil, food, or products. Some chemical toxins include pesticides, BPA, phthalates, metals, and others that come from manufacturers or agriculture practices that can cause harm to humans and the environment. 

Biological toxic exposure comes from agents produced by microorganisms such as animals, insects, and plants. An example of a biological toxin is mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are toxic byproducts of fungi. Biological toxins are hazardous when they get inhaled, ingested, or absorbed. Chemical and biological toxins can disrupt our cells and DNA and damage our body systems, including our neurological function.

Another form of toxic exposure that often gets overlooked is social toxic environments. Socially toxic environments refer to environments that cause chronic stress that threaten well-being. These can be environments of unstable housing, violence, racism, or economic instability that pose severe threats to psychological and social development.

What is The Link Between Toxic Exposures and Mental Health?

A myriad of evidence links toxic exposures and their harmful effects on mental health. Studies show that the brain is the most affected human organ by environmental toxins. Environmental toxin exposure can cause developmental delays and impairments in cognition. Exposure to these chemical toxins can create neurodevelopmental disorders that impact mental health. These neurotoxic agents can also affect psychological and emotional regulation and create symptoms of mental disorders. From a social standpoint, more evidence points to social environments impacting mental health due to different stressors, access to care, and social determinants, which will be discussed in further detail in the next section.

What Are Some Common Toxic Exposures?

The following are some common toxic exposures and their impact on mental health:

Air Pollution

Air pollution is considered a serious health risk, including mental health. Air pollutants are substances from industrial or vehicle emissions and indoor pollutants that modify the natural indoor or outdoor atmosphere. There is evidence that these pollutants are associated with psychological distress and increase the risk of depression and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

Heavy Metals

The toxicity of heavy metals vary’s on the metal and the amount. An interesting fact is that lead is toxic at all levels. Metals have an impact on mental health due to their harm to the central nervous system and their disruption of neuronal signaling. Exposure to lead and other metals, such as mercury and arsenic, can lead to neurobehavioral impacts on children, which can also affect their neurodevelopment and speaking ability.


Recent findings suggest a link between mental health issues such as depression, pesticides, and other agrichemicals. The studies demonstrate that farmers who use these chemicals are at a greater risk of developing depression. Women who had prior pesticide poisoning were three times more likely to experience depression. Exposure to these chemicals can lead to psychological distress and mental health issues, but further research is still needed.

Social Determinants

Recent research supports the significance of social determinants and their effect on mental health. This is particularly true for fixed characteristics such as race/ethnicity, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation. These findings link these determinants with specific mental health symptoms and psychological well-being, showing that social determinants can play a role in influencing mental health. People without social support, a sense of belonging, or trust in others or were in an environment of abuse had an increased risk of mental health disorders, personality dysfunction, and psychotic experiences.

Who Are The Most Vulnerable Populations?

The most vulnerable populations to toxic exposure are children, pregnant women, elderly individuals, and people with lower socioeconomic status. Research shows that certain environmental factors put this population at more risk. For example, Black, Indigenous, and people of color are more affected by environmental injustices as these groups have more exposure due to their living situation or jobs. They may also have less access to care and education when it comes to hazardous exposure to help them in a timely manner for prevention and treatment.

What Are Some Functional Medicine Labs to Test for Toxic Exposures?

The following are the functional medicine labs often used to evaluate toxin exposure:

Heavy Metal Test

Heavy metals such as antimony, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum, lead, and mercury can be tested and analyzed through a hair sample. The Hair Elements test provides an analysis of these metals through a hair sample, as these elements are up to 300 times more concentrated in the hair. This test can provide an evaluation of recent or ongoing exposure.

Environment Toxin Profile

This profile is an excellent functional medicine lab that analyzes 39 environmental toxic exposure levels. The environmental toxin profile provides an analysis of toxicants such as pesticides, parabens, BPA, and others. Evaluating these toxins can allow for strategies to help reduce exposure.

Array 11

The Array 11 test screens for chemical exposures. This test will measure your antibody response to chemicals, which allows for the identification of your immune reaction to these specific substances. This test may be helpful for those who experience sensitivities to pollutants.

Total Tox Burden

The Total Tox Burden test can be completed easily through a urine sample. It’s a full and complete look at toxins that can overload your system as it analyzes chemical toxins such as BPAs, pesticides, and heavy metals. It will also measure biological toxins such as mycotoxins. The results of this test can provide guidance on treatment protocols to reduce your toxic burden.


What is The Conventional Treatment for Detoxifying From Toxic Exposures?

The conventional treatment for toxic exposure is avoidance, or if the level of exposure is high enough, as is the case with some metals, medications may be used for detoxification. Chelating agents such as DMSA or CaNa2EDTA are used to remove these metals. These medications are given orally or through an IV under the supervision of a doctor. It’s important to note that acute poisoning can occur with toxic exposures, and these are considered medical emergencies.

How Can Functional Medicine Assist With Detoxification For Mental Health Support?

Functional medicine utilizes a whole-body comprehensive approach to address health issues. The following are a few functional medicine strategies to assist with detoxification for mental health support:


Personalized nutritional planning is the cornerstone of functional medicine. When it comes to detoxification, avoidance to reduce the level of toxic exposure will be foundational. Therefore, lab testing to determine which toxins and the levels of those specific toxins can help guide nutritional planning. If heavy metals are suspected, limiting the amount of seafood, ensuring your drinking water is fully filtered, and confirming the source of your supplements will be paramount, as these are the primary sources of heavy metal exposure for individuals.

Another dietary way to reduce the toxic burden is to follow the Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 or Dirty Dozen guidelines to limit chemical exposure from food or food products. They will update this list every year according to their research findings. Nutrition can also be protective against toxin exposure as high-fiber, plant-rich, and whole-food diet plans can provide high amounts of micronutrients that prevent the binding of certain toxins like metals and can help with elimination.

Supplements & Herbs for Mental Health Support

The following supplements and herbs are often used by functional medicine practitioners to assist with detoxification:


Glutathione is made from amino acids and is considered a master antioxidant as it can help the body recycle other antioxidants. Antioxidants can improve oxidative stress levels that occur with toxin exposure. Glutathione assists your liver in detoxifying toxins.

‍N-acetylcysteine (NAC)

If glutathione is the president of antioxidants, NAC is its executive assistant. This nutrient is the precursor to glutathione and can help the body produce glutathione. NAC enhances detoxification by binding to free radicals that cause oxidative damage and help your body eliminate them.

‍Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a water-soluble nutrient also called ascorbic acid. It’s a powerful antioxidant to help the body get rid of free radicals. Vitamin C at 1000 mg has been shown to saturate your plasma levels.

‍Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is an herb also known as silymarin. It is hepatoprotective and can help the liver metabolize toxins from the body. This supplement is safe at doses between 420 and 2100 mg per day.


Fiber is a great option to help eliminate. It is known to bind to toxins so they can be excreted through the digestive tract. Fiber can also help with improving bowel movements. The suggested daily fiber intake is 38 grams for males ages 14-50 and 25 grams for females ages 19-50.

B Vitamins

B vitamins are needed so your liver can adequately detoxify substances. The vitamins B6, B9, and B12 are required to help produce liver enzymes for Phases 1 and 2 of the liver’s detoxification pathways. Having adequate amounts of these B vitamins is essential to help metabolize and remove toxins from your body.

Complementary and Integrative Medicine

There are some helpful integrative approaches to support your body in eliminating toxins. They include exercise, sweating, and massage. Exercise in the forms of aerobic and resistance training can increase circulation and oxygenation to organs that are responsible for detoxification, helping them function more effectively and supporting more efficient elimination. Sweating is another way to improve circulation, increase blood flow, and enhance detoxification. Sweating can be accomplished through rigorous exercise, infrared saunas, or dry skin brushing to help eliminate toxins by way of the skin.

Exercise, saunas, and sweating also help improve the function of the lymphatic system. This body system is essential for elimination as it aids in removing toxins and debris from the lymph nodes. An excellent way to improve lymphatic drainage while also relieving stress is through massage therapy techniques such as manual lymphatic drainage techniques. This technique uses gentle movements to optimize lymphatic flow, supporting the elimination of toxins from the body.



Mental health has become a prominent public health issue as it’s a leading contributor to disabilities and can have serious adverse impacts on social, personal, work, and other daily life activities. Therefore, identifying and exploring the potential causes of mental health is vital to supporting the people this affects. Science experts are revealing a link between environmental factors and mental health. These environmental factors include chemical, biological, and social toxic exposure. Knowing how to reduce and improve these exposure levels can help enhance overall health and quality of life. Functional labs are powerful tools to guide you in the right direction. They can help detect current and prior exposure to help tailor integrative treatment protocols such as supplements, nutrition, saunas, or a combination of those approaches to safely reduce your toxic load.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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