How Toxic Are You?
The Importance of Testing For Environmental Toxins
Good health, well-being and longevity depend on four components:
- Fitness of the body
- Nutrition (including supplements where indicated)
- Fitness of the mind (including stress management, regular contemplative practice such as yoga, tai chi or meditation)
- Connectivity, defined as self-awareness and positive relationships with one’s family, community and the environment.
Somehow, the environment is often left out of this equation, but it is perhaps the most important factor. The first step in having a positive relationship with your environment is by ensuring that it is as natural as possible. Sure, toxins have and will always exist but that doesn’t mean that you should purposely or even unwittingly add them into your environment. Being educated and even expert on this topic is healthy. As I like to say, ‘detoxification’ is far more about what we avoid putting into or around ourselves than it is engaging in the latest detox diet, trend, or supplement.
There are three very important things to know about toxins: first, that naturally- occurring (like mercury) or not, almost all environmental toxins are stored in fat cells and increase in the body over one’s lifetime, disrupting the immune, nervous, and hormone systems; second, that a toxic burden can be the underlying source of many immune-related or other chronic illnesses and you may be surprised to learn that these toxins can be passed on to future generations, increasing the risk of childhood diseases such as leukemia and other cancers, asthma, autism, and ADD/ADHD, to name a few; third, and most importantly, appropriate testing for systemic toxins should be the first step to help you get back on the road to wellness. It will help answer the question – how toxic are you?
To some degree or another, we are all exposed to so-called heavy metals- mercury, lead, arsenic and others through a sudden poisoning incident or through long-term, low-level exposure inherent to our modern environments. Heavy metal pollution from industrial processes may seem exotic, but the persistence of metals in the environment and their tendency to bioaccumulation and biomagnification is a constant factor. The warnings we hear about eating large predator fish stem from this accumulation factor. And surprisingly, many dentists continue to fill teeth with the mercury, a neurotoxin.
People with excessive acute or chronic heavy metal exposure (or simply express hypersensitivity to minute amounts) may experience fatigue, weakness, chemical sensitivity, irritability, anxiety, memory loss, insomnia, numbness and tingling in hands and feet, tremors, gastrointestinal issues and loss of appetite. If you are troubled by such symptoms, testing for individual heavy metals is always a good idea. But the symptoms of, say, mercury toxicity can be similar to those of lead or cadmium toxicity and knowing what to test for can be daunting and confusing. Working with an experienced health care provider – in particular a functional medicine practitioner – is the way to begin. They may choose to test you for porphyrins, whose chemical structures bind to heavy metals. Specific porphyrin elevations in urine may serve as functional markers that can help identify the severity of exposure to specific toxic metals.
The Spring Clean:
Most folks associate a good spring clean with an accumulated ‘mess’ that they can see – the stuff sitting around cluttering the house. This spring, consider a more important type of spring cleaning. Start by auditing your dresser top, your children’s bedroom and the medicine cabinet!
Phthalates and parabens can be found in children's toys, cosmetics, cleaning products, air fresheners, perfumes, furniture, vinyl flooring, plastic food containers, and medical products. Phthalates and parabens are often classified as “xenoestrogens,” foreign compounds in the body that bind specifically to estrogen receptors and function as hormone mimickers and not surprisingly as hormone disruptors. Put it this way, they are no good for you! Researchers have studied the phthalate and paraben concentrations in everyday products, but you may also have yourself tested to determine how much of the insidious chemicals you personally contain.
Once you’ve assessed and managed the environments where you and your children spend most of your time (sleeping and playing), next up it’s time to check the kitchen cupboards. Bisphenol-A (BPA) is still a common ingredient in plastics associated with food storage, regardless of warnings issued years ago that it contributes to cancer. Sure, they replaced most of the baby bottles that contained it, but nearly every canned food still has a liner within it that contains BPA. Take a closer look! I was upset recently to discover that the holding tank on my reverse osmosis water filter had a lining within it containing BPA. Testing yourself for bisphenol-A might be a good idea and can also help identify exposure to other common hormone disruptors like triclosan (an antimicrobial found in many hand soaps, hand sanitizers, some toothpaste, and other cosmetics), and 4-nonylphenol (found in industrial detergents, foaming agents, dispersants, and emulsifiers). These too may be lurking in the kitchen or its cupboards. Get ‘em out!
I mentioned reverse osmosis water – best source in my opinion. There is nothing you’re more exposed to than your water. Chlorinated pesticides have been used in agriculture worldwide since World War II, and as insecticides to exterminate mosquitoes, termites and fire ants. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) is the best known organochlorine insecticide. Although they’re now largely banned in Canada and the United States, they continue to contaminate soil and groundwater and through these routes can ultimately enter our nervous systems. Infants can be exposed through breastfeeding.
The Center of Disease lists normal reference ranges for chlorinated pesticides including DDT in human blood that has been documented to cause adverse health problems. You can have yourself tested for chlorinated pesticides to help identify when or if you may have been exposed to certain pesticides and insecticides, and how high a body burden of chlorinated pesticides you are carrying. Levels are given both in parts per billion (PPB) and as lipid-adjusted amounts so your clinician can best estimate the total body burden of DDT or any other chlorinated pesticide. Chlorinated pesticides have an affinity for fat-rich tissues, and are stored in various organs—shockingly, they have been identified in over 98 percent of all persons studied. These toxins “bioaccumulate” in our bodies, increasing our toxic burden over time, and are powerful mitochondrial toxins. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of every cell in your body that work to create the biological currency of energy we know as ATP. Pesticides disturb the natural process of mitochondrial energy production. They may also be the root cause of many chronic illnesses, including Parkinson’s.
You’ve checked your cupboards and water source. Stay right there in the kitchen, and open up the refrigerator. Are you eating organic food? You should be. Organophosphate pesticides have found widespread application since the 1950s as pesticides and most exposure occurs from ingestion through our food supply. Direct exposure through the skin can also occur for farmers and other people who work directly with these chemicals. Testing is important if you think you’ve had prolonged exposure to the organophosphates, because they’ve been shown to cause serious health problems such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and neurological deficits in children and babies in the womb, producing lower IQs, chronic fatigue, asthma, immune system disorders, impaired memory, disorientation, depression, irritability, flu-like symptoms and a possible increase in the risk of cancer. We want our children to eat more fruits and veggies, but a recent study found that each tenfold increase in urinary concentration of organophosphate metabolites was associated with a 55 to 72 percent increase in the odds of ADHD in children. The solution: go certified organic!
Outside the House:
If you’ve still got the energy, don’t forget to peek into the infamous garage! Volatile solvents such as those found in car exhaust, paints, glues, adhesives and lacquer thinners are also used in the manufacture of many consumer products: glues and adhesives, paints and paint thinners, furniture, building materials, degreasing agents, inks, pharmaceuticals, and additives to gasoline and shoes. Exposure to volatile solvents is usually through inhalation of fumes or ingestion of polluted water. For those living and working in urban areas, the exposure to this class of compounds goes on twenty-four hours a day. Solvents are damaging to your bone marrow and are associated with immune disorders, chronic neurological problems and infertility. Besides organizing and tossing, you want to ensure your garage is well ventilated and very well cordoned off from the rest of the home. If you believe you may have had an overexposure or chronic exposure to volatile solvents, you don’t need to wait until there is obvious damage to your central nervous system or chemical-driven liver and kidney damage before you ask your health care provider to help determine your levels. In particular, one solvent, benzene, has a severe toxic effect on the blood and is a known cause of cancer. Other solvents contribute to atrophy of skeletal muscles, loss of coordination, vision problems and depression of the central nervous system.
Sure, there is quite a bit of shock-and-awe related to toxin exposure. Here’s the good news. Our bodies are very well equipped to deal with toxins. We detoxify every second of every day – some better than others (due to genetics, environmental exposure, and diet/lifestyle habits). And where it doesn’t hurt to employ a cleanse here and there or engage in a prescribed detoxification, the bottom line is stop exposing yourself in the first place! Oh… and if you have symptoms that haven’t been addressed, why not get tested!?
Dr. Bryce Wylde is one of Canada's leading experts on natural medicine. wyldeabouthealth.com