Life comes at you fast. So do the chemicals that allow it to happen.
Toxin exposure is a subtle yet important aspect of day-to-day life that’s hard to measure but accumulates like the computer virus designed by Peter, Samir, and Michael Bolton in Office Space:
That is, it continuously affects your body in very small ways over and over that add up in really big ways over time.
It’s estimated that toxin exposure has its fingerprints in 90% of cancer cases. This isn’t because toxin exposure “causes” cancer directly, but because residual toxin build up within your body eventually makes it more sensitive to other chemicals which can make otherwise normal systems go awry.
1,001 Different Ways to be Exposed
Exposure to toxins can take place practically anytime you come in contact with a surface. Surfectants, adhesives, herbicides, pesticides, paints and teflon can all contain chemicals that leave residues that can be harmful if they’re not continually removed from your body in a timely manner.
You could write a book on the nuances of the thousands of possible concentrated substances your skin, lungs and belly get exposed to over a lifetime but the most prevalent types of toxins fall into three categories:
1). Heavy Metals – These include aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and nickel. They primarily come from industrial production of various sorts that gradually find their way into the atmosphere to be inhaled, deposited in trace amounts on crops through fertilizer and soil, and from second hand smoke (this is especially true for lead and cadmium).
Heavy metals exert their effects by blocking enzymes, displacing nutritional minerals like calcium and magnesium and increasing oxidative stress. There is a disturbing correlation between heavy metal exposure early in life and low IQ later on in life. Pregnant women and infants with higher than average heavy metal levels are at much higher risk for cognitive impairments.
2). Organic Pollutants – These are carbon based compounds that are handled by the liver and usually digested through the mouth. They include alcohol, solvents, herbicides and pesticides, food additives, and many prescription drugs. Many of these chemicals acutely affect the nervous system if they’re not properly metabolized and can affect mental health, nerve sensations, and abnormal reflexes if they’re allowed to build up.
3). Microbial compounds – These are byproducts of bacteria and yeast cultures living inside your gut. Lots of bacteria shoot off harmful chemicals while living inside your colon. In a well functioning body many of them can be carried out via soluble fiber.
Microbial compounds that build up in your digestive system are believed to be a causal factor in the development of autoimmune disorders. It’s not hype that diseases like coeliac’s and crohn’s are becoming more common. Excess microbial byproducts can result in your body producing antibodies (proteins your immune system uses to attack invaders) for them which cross-react with your body’s own tissues and begin attacking them. Diseases of this type include rheumatoid arthritis, myasthenia gravis, and type I diabetes.
A Monster Lurking in the Dark
One of the challenges with toxin exposure is that you don’t have enough to make you diagnosably ill all at once. It’s only after you’ve been working in a thick fog in the coal mine for 30 years and get lung cancer that you realize it was a bad idea to be sucking in fumes all those years.
Smooth surfaces, household detergents, automobile exhaust, energy production, pharmaceutical drugs, heavy drinking, daily coffee, anything you can put up your nose, and clean places in general are repeatedly crop-dusting your detox systems and debasing your body’ ability to cleanse itself…..even if you can’t feel it.
The long-term health effects of heightened toxin exposure are far reaching precisely because they’re so vague. Toxin exposure is a steady creep that gently tugs on the gears of your body’s systems, gradually grinding them to a halt.
Curiously enough, the biggest impact of toxin exposure outside of cancer is obesity.
That’s right. When it comes to getting fat, toxins trail a close second behind insulin resistance in risk factors. Most excess toxins get stored in your fat, which disrupts endocrine signaling throughout the body. That’s what happens when you get a beer gut.
It’s not an accident that people find six packs sexy. Abdominal fat is very unnatural and indicates that something’s wrong. Fat that deposits itself throughout your body is usually used for energy storage, and getting or losing moderate amounts of it doesn’t move the needle that much when it comes to your health.
But belly fat is a telltale sign that something’s not right. It means your body is tacking fat onto its organs, which isn’t where it’s supposed to go. Belly fat means your body has an hormonal imbalance resulting from so many fat storing signals coarsing through your blood that it has no idea what to do with them.
How Your Body Cleans Itself
Your body has two steps it uses to get rid of toxins, which are unimaginitively called Phase I and Phase II. They both happen in your liver. All toxins get put through Phase I, where they either get excreted, neutralized, or passed off in a more reactive form to phase II.
Both of these systems require a lot of enzymes and hormones to work, and an excess of toxins can deplete your body’s stores which leaves it unable to cope with more rudimentary tasks like clearing out the alcohol from your night out on the town last night.
The worst is when Phase II runs out of raw material before Phase I. Phase I actually turns a lot of stuff into something that’s substantially worse than what you originally digested and becomes more poisonous if it leaves your liver without being fully detoxified.
Foods to Eat
Foods that aid detoxification allow your body to increase the raw materials necessary for Phase I and Phase II detoxification and the antioxidants necessary to do away with the byproducts. And fiber to help take out the garbage.
Here are the most useful foods and herbs that help your body cleanse itself:
1). Brassica family vegetables. Ie, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage. Not that exciting, I know. But the boring truth is that broccoli and such are a strong stimulant for detox enzymes, particularly those that get rid of carcinogens like cigarette smoke. It’s why they’re anti-cancer.
2). Oranges and lemons. Oranges and lemons are unique among citrus fruits for the presence of a substance called limonene which activates a lot of Phase I and Phase II detox enzymes and is found in the peel of both fruits. Curiously enough other citrus fruits do not have limonene and are not a replacement for oranges and lemons. Grapefruit has a chemical called naringenin which has the opposite effect of limonene and thus should be avoided if looking to detox.
3). Dill and Caraway Seeds. Like oranges, the seeds of caraway and dill have large amount of limonene which activates detox enzymes.
4). Milk Thistle. Milk thistle contains a compound called silymarin which is very effective at allowing your liver to replenish itself. It’s been a secret of naturopath’s and functioning alcoholics for decades.
5). Turmeric. Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin which is a strong activator of Phase II detox enzymes. It also deactivates phase I enzymes, so make sure to drink some orange juice with your curry.
How to Test Yourself
Testing yourself for toxin levels isn’t always straightforward because the amount that can be located in your blood, skin, hair or feces doesn’t always indicate how much lifetime exposure you’ve had. People also have large variations in the amount of detox enzymes they express in their body, which can sometimes differ by as much as 15x.
If you want to get tested here are the three best ways to do it:
Challenge Testing: You digest a chelating agent that binds to lead, cadmium, mercury, etc and allows you to excrete them in your urine which is then analyzed. It’s possible to order take home tests for this from Genova Diagnostics, but most people get them done through a visit with an ND.
Clearance Testing: These measure how well your liver and kidneys are filtering out toxins. Both of these can be bought for $29 from request-a-test (liver here and kidney here) or administered through a doctor.
Hair Mineral Analysis: It has the same ends as challenge testing, but instead measures the amount of minerals and metals present in your hair follicles. The most reputable one I could find on the net costs $109 at bodypure.
It should be pointed out that all of these tests are very fallible and won’t do much good if not performed and interpreted correctly. There are a lot of small bits which cast a large shadow on how useful any of these tests can actually be.
For instance, challenge testing overestimates the amount of circulating metals by design since a lot of what it binds would normally sift through your body without an issue if it wasn’t excreted. Urine that’s sampled immediately after a challenge test will probably exaggerate how high your effective levels of heavy metal exposure really are.
Likewise, a hair test isn’t useful for all people because some people don’t excrete minerals and metals very well.
I’m not one of these people who think self-testing of any kind should be discouraged if it’s not done under the close supervision of a doctor. Doctor’s are fallible too, and their incentives are a lot worse than yours. The doctor in your office probably took one course in nutrition at medical school and prescribes tests according to the payout tables provided by your health insurance company.
And of course we know seeing one can be very expensive. They shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s silly to treat them as secular messiahs impervious to judgment.
You can take control of your health……but be careful in your approach and humble in your conclusions.
So caveat emptor!
Lifestyle Recommendations for Detoxing
Since measurement of toxin exposure is so fuzzy it’s best to regularly engage activities that have a lot of evidence for removing harmful products in your body, thus making the results of the tests less relevant altogether.
What are the easiest ways to accomplish this?
1). Eat lots of fiber. If your body is a temple then fiber is the neighborhood garbage collector. It doesn’t really “do” anything inside your body…..it just passes through it altogether, bringing along lots of unwanted stuff with it.
It’s chic among health zealots to get in pointless debates about whether or not something is really good or bad for you. There is an amusingly white-hot debate in pockets of the blogosphere about the relative usefulness of things like fat, grains, fruit, and oil, with people taking political allegiances with one opinion or the other.
Recently this sort of discussion has extended to the benefits of fiber. There are some interesting points, but ultimately it looks like people who are running out of things to talk about. It’s true that fiber isn’t always good in limitless quantities, but it’s uncontroversial that it removes a wide variety of harsh substances that shouldn’t be there.
2). Avoid stimulants. Coffee, tea, alcohol, and medication don’t pose serious health risks if taken in moderation. But most of them contain active ingredients that have need to be removed from your liver and kidneys and eventually tax your purification systems if left unchecked. It’s a good idea to abstain from them time to time.
3). Go on a fast. For some people fasting is quackish and something that should be left to shakra channeling new age hippies that don’t appreciate the rigors of science. They’re wrong.
It’s a well practiced tradition that’s been vetted through various religions and cultures and has quite a bit of scientific support behind it.
The basic idea behind its health benefits is something your body does called autophagy. Autophagy is when your body’s cells begin eating into themselves for energy, causing it to get rid of a lot of junk that’s not being used for anything else. It’s extremely useful and is a powerful way to prevent cancer (which makes sense, since cancer is a disease of excessive growth).
Does fasting only work if you do it for 60 days or more? No.
Does fasting mean buying $250+ supplement packages to replace all your meals? No.
Fasting means periodically setting aside 2-3 days where you can rest, refrain from all stimulants, and eat a light, highly nutritious meal at the beginning or end of the day. Drinking freshly pressed vegetable juice is also a way to go. It’s a form of sabbath.
Anand, P. et. al. “Cancer is a preventable disease that requires major lifestyle changes.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18626751
Lewis, Michael. “Prenatal Exposure to Heavy Metals: Effect on Childhood Cognitive Skills and Health Status.” http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/89/6/1010.short
Walter Longo. “Fasting cycles retard growth of tumors and sensitize a range of cancer cell types to chemotherapy.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3608686/
Murray, Michael, et. al. “The Natural Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine.” http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Natural-Medicine-Third-Edition/dp/1451663005