We live in a toxic world. Whether you live next to an oil refinery or on a pristine mountaintop in the Rockies, you carry environmental toxins in your tissues. From heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium — emitted from smokestacks and vehicle exhaust — to pesticides, fertilizers, and PCB's released into rivers and soil, and phthalates that off-gas from household plastic products, we are all swimming in a soup of toxic chemicals.
Environmental toxins affect all bodily systems and have been linked to the development of endocrine, immune, reproductive, metabolic, cardiovascular, cognitive, and behavioral disorders. The nervous system is especially vulnerable to toxic exposure. The brain is made up primarily of lipids. And because most environmental toxins are lipid-soluble — that is, they dissolve easily in lipids — brain tissue is particularly sensitive to them. A number of neurodegenerative ailments have been linked to toxin exposure, including Parkinson's disease, ALS, learning disabilities, conduct disorders, and certain dementias. Many neurological symptoms of toxic exposure are common and not linked to a specific disease, including headaches, fatigue, impaired concentration and memory, and insomnia.
Those are sobering facts, but there are ways to protect yourself. Two primary strategies to reduce the impact of environmental toxins on your health are: 1) minimize exposure and absorption in the first place, and 2) develop a routine to detoxify your body on a regular basis.
The best way to avoid toxic exposure is to eat only organically grown food, or as much of it as you can. In her new book, "Organic Manifesto," Maria Rodale shares the staggering research on environmental toxins and lays out an elegant plan for improving your health and the health of the planet by going organic.
Here are three key strategies for enjoying organic foods:
- Find a local farmer's market where you can buy fresh, local, organic food directly from a grower.
- At the supermarket, look for the USDA Organic seal.
- Buy in bulk and store the excess for later to take advantage of seasonal prices.
To provide expert information on detoxifying, I spoke with Tereza Hubkova, MD, an integrative physician and a colleague of mine at Canyon Ranch. She had this to share:
"All of us have toxins stored in the tissues of our body. Based on our genetic makeup, some of us get away with it, but many people don't. Symptoms of toxic exposure can be so nonspecific (headaches, fatigue, weakness) that you may never suspect they are related to toxins in your body, and thus, never even get tested or treated.
While eating organic is ideal, even if you eat organic food and drink pure spring water, you've been exposed to environmental toxins. They are in the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, and many of the products we use. Studies have shown they reside in the fat cells of everyone's body, even newborn infants'. Your body is capable of removing toxins to some extent (well or poorly — based on your genes and lifestyle), but if you are exposed to too many toxins, the capacity to remove them will be overwhelmed and symptoms or illness may develop."
What it means
Toxins are a fact of life, but a two-pronged approach of avoiding them when possible and eliminating the ones that accumulate in your body can make a difference.
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Dr. Hubkova recommends the following seven strategies for supporting healthy detoxification:
1. Eat mostly organic food, especially foods that support detoxification, including cruciferous vegetables, garlic and onions. A healthy, balanced diet is a key to efficient detoxification. The lighter the toxic load on your body, the better it can handle those toxins that get through your defenses.
2. Engage in regular vigorous exercise. Increased respiration, circulation, and perspiration all support healthy detoxification.
3. Hop in the sauna frequently. Perspiring is one of your body's best ways of releasing toxins.
4. Drink at least 64 ounces of fresh, pure water each day. The combination of good hydration and frequent perspiration helps to flush your system of toxins.
5. Stay regular. Elimination once or twice a day helps to decrease absorption of toxins. Consistent exercise, hydration, and fiber will help to keep you regular.
6. If you are trying to lose weight, make sure to engage in the detox practices described above. As you shed fat, toxins held in fat cells are released. It is essential to cleanse those toxins from your body, rather than reabsorb them, which can cause illness.
7. Use antioxidants. Antioxidants such as alpha-lipoic acid, N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine, and the B vitamins help with detoxification. The best detoxification regimen for you depends on your unique genetic makeup, as well as the particular toxins you are dealing with. Consult with an integrative physician or naturopathic doctor, who can evaluate you to determine the best combination of diet and supplements for you. The American College for Advancement in Medicine and the Institute for Functional Medicine maintain national listings of integrative and naturopathic physicians.
To learn more about environmental toxins, check out the Environmental Working Group website. To find out about specific environmental toxins in your area, listed by zipcode, go to www.scorecard.org.
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, "Mind-Body-Mood Advisor," appears weekly on Rodale.com.