If you eat healthy, exercise regularly, and feel that you’ve done everything in your power to get well, but you’re still experiencing frustrating symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, or digestive issues, environmental toxicity may be behind it.
Environmental toxins are everywhere. Substances and chemicals that can disrupt our hormones, lead to chronic illnesses, and cause cancer are found in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the products we use, and the ground beneath our feet. Some occur naturally, many are man-made. Some of them we hear about frequently and know to avoid, and others we hear and know almost nothing about.
We are surrounded by toxins every day, from pesticides to heavy metals to the chemicals in our cosmetics. All told, research estimates that we are living in the company of about 80,000 different toxic chemicals (1).
Research into the long-term effects of these tens of thousands of toxins on human health is limited (for a number of reasons), but the data that we do have demonstrates links between environmental toxins and an increased prevalence of a number of different chronic illnesses including Alzheimer’s, autism, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Many experts believe that the rising incidence of chronic disease altogether is largely caused by environmental toxins.
Very few of the approximately 80,000 toxic chemicals present in our environment have been assessed for their safety and long-term effects, and conventional medicine together with most industries fail to consider the complexities of chronic exposure to toxins.
For example, none of us live in bubbles wherein we are only being exposed to one specific chemical or toxin. Most of the assertions of safety that we hear from chemical or food companies, though, are based on limited research into one chemical in isolation. It is not taken into consideration that we are being bombarded on a daily basis by toxins of all kinds, or that many toxins are capable of accumulating in our bodies instead of being eliminated. It is not taken into consideration that each of our capacities to detoxify are different.
Acute toxicity or poisoning from high levels of exposure to toxins can generally be identified, but it is much more challenging to recognize the effects of chronic, low-level exposure. Symptoms may come on gradually, and can mimic symptoms of various chronic illnesses including fibromyalgia and depression. Environmental toxicity often presents, especially early on, as a general feeling of being unwell, which is, of course, difficult to pinpoint.
Understanding Toxic Load
One of the biggest problems with our current state of understanding of environmental toxicity is that most studies focus on the effects of a single toxin, which is not reflective of the world we live in or the way our bodies react to stressors over time. Much of our current research also fails to take into consideration the fact that we bioaccumulate certain toxins, including heavy metals, and therefore the levels that we are exposed to at any one time do not tell the whole story.
It is almost always the combination and build-up of multiple toxins that leads to chronic health conditions, not exposure to one toxin alone. Other factors including stress, genetic factors, infections, food allergies, certain medications, and dysbiosis can alter the way that we react to toxins, and our ability to eliminate them.
Everyone’s toxic load is different, and everyone’s capacity for detoxification is different, but we all have our limits. When we become overloaded with toxins and other stressors, our detoxification system begins to falter, and symptoms and illness can start to develop. When we have reached our limit in terms of toxic load, we may also become hypersensitive, experiencing an abnormal immune response and loss of tolerance towards chemicals and foods that at one time didn’t seem to bother us.
Types of Environmental Toxins
There are thousands of different kinds of toxins in our environment, and we don’t yet know how all of them affect our health, but there are a few types of major offenders that we can point to. These include:
-Toxic metals including mercury, lead, and cadmium
-BPA and phthalates (chemicals used to soften plastics– found in cosmetic products, shampoos, plastic bottles, and a number of other products)
-Mycotoxins from mold
-Chemicals from fuel emissions
Mechanisms of harm vary, but many environmental toxins have negative neurological, reproductive, and immune system effects. Many are considered to be endocrine disruptors, meaning that they interfere with our endocrine (hormone) system, and many have been found to be carcinogenic, with cancers often developing several years after exposure.
Heavy Metal Toxicity
Heavy metals are among the most prevalent toxins that surround us, but they tend to be hidden in plain view. We don’t often see or hear about them the way we do with certain kinds of chemicals or pesticides, but toxic metals are everywhere, including in the water we drink, the food we eat, and even the air we breathe.
Mercury is one of the biggest offenders. Some common sources to be aware of include amalgam (silver) dental fillings, certain kinds of seafood, and fertilizers and pesticides. Another prevalent and problematic metal is lead, which is found in the paint, pipes, and building materials of older homes, some tap water, and many industrial materials.
In spite of the banning of lead for certain uses, our exposure to toxic metals has increased significantly over the last few decades, and many individuals are unknowingly suffering from heavy metal toxicity due to chronic exposure. Toxic metals are known to contribute to a number of different health problems (2) including neurological disorders, cardiovascular disease, neurodevelopmental disorders, and thyroid conditions. Heavy metal toxicity is often misdiagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or fibromyalgia, depression, multiple sclerosis, and other chronic conditions.
Toxicity From Mold & Mycotoxins
Mycotoxins, a byproduct of certain kinds of mold, can trigger chronic inflammation, immune system dysregulation, neurotoxicity, and chronic illness (3). Experiencing toxicity from mycotoxins is different from having a mold allergy, and is largely related to a common genetic susceptibility that keeps certain individuals from being able to produce the right antibodies to these toxins.
Mycotoxin-producing mold is not always noticeable, but most commonly occurs in water damaged buildings. Many people don’t know that their homes or workplaces have been through water damage and may be exposing them to mycotoxins that are gradually making them sick.
Pesticides & Toxicity
Pesticides are among the most common and harmful toxins that we are exposed to. More than 4.5 billion pounds of pesticides are used every year in the US alone. We are regularly exposed to pesticides in the air around us and in much of our food supply. Glyphosate, the most common herbicide in use today, has been linked to almost two dozen chronic diseases (4) and is a known carcinogen, but companies such as Monsanto still insist on its safety.
Signs & Symptoms of Environmental Toxicity
Environmental toxins can cause harm by creating inflammation, causing oxidative stress, interfering with our hormones and thyroid function, causing mitochondrial dysfunction, blocking our absorption of essential minerals, and disrupting our balance of gut bacteria, among other effects.
Because of these varied mechanisms of harm, environmental toxicity can cause a wide array of different symptoms, and often mimics other illnesses including fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Toxicity from chronic, low-grade toxicity is much harder to identify than cases of acute toxicity or poisoning in which symptoms are more extreme and come on very quickly following exposure.
Symptoms of environmental toxicity are different for everyone. It’s important to be aware of the broader signs in addition to specific symptoms. Have you been eating healthy and taking care of yourself, but you still feel unwell? Have you done everything in your power to lose weight only to see the scale not budge? Have you been unable to get to the root of your health concerns? Have you been diagnosed with a condition that doesn’t seem to fit the bill or that has not resolved with treatment? Have you been told that maybe it’s all in your head? This all points to underlying environmental toxicity.
Symptoms vary but can include:
-Difficulty losing weight
-Difficulty concentrating; memory problems; confusion
-Muscle aches; pain
-Digestive concerns; bloating; gas; constipation; diarrhea; abdominal pain
-Skin rashes; eczema
-Dizziness; vertigo; light sensitivity; visual disturbances
-Frequent infections and/or viruses; poor immunity
-Mood swings; depression; irritability
-Shortness of breath
Conditions that may occur alongside environmental toxicity include:
-Fibromyalgia; Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
-Depression; anxiety; mood disorders
-ADD or ADHD
How To Limit Exposure
Toxins are everywhere, and we can’t avoid them entirely, but we can take steps to reduce our exposure as much as possible.
Practical ways to reduce exposure to environmental toxins include:
-Choose organic produce as much as possible, and thoroughly wash all fruits & vegetables. Bonus points for growing your own! As a general rule, eat whole, unprocessed, natural foods.
-Be cautious of seafood and fish that may contain high levels of mercury.
-Use plastic sparingly, and never heat or microwave plastic. Choose PVC-free and BPA-free containers and bottles. Use glass, porcelain, cast iron, titanium, and carbon steel items in the kitchen as much as possible.
-Choose phthalate-free cosmetics and beauty products, and limit use of products with “fragrance” listed as an ingredient.
-Address any areas in the home that have been water-damaged.
-Choose natural cleaning products.
-Avoid conventional pesticides.
-If you have any amalgam (silver) fillings, consult a holistic dentist about safe removal.
-If your house was built prior to 1978, you may want to have it inspected for lead paint.
Women who are pregnant, planning on getting pregnant, or breastfeeding should be especially cautious, and it is also important to remember that children are more susceptible to environmental toxins than adults.
The Importance of Detoxification
Being aware of sources of toxins and reducing exposure as much as possible is important, but reducing exposure on its own will not solve the problem of toxicity if the body’s ability to detoxify is not supported or repaired.
This begins with living a healthy lifestyle: managing stress, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and eating properly. Nutrition is extremely important when it comes to detoxification. Eating clean foods packed with nutrients including lots of vegetables, healthy fats, and antioxidant-rich foods, and eating organic as much as possible, helps to support all of the systems in the body that help with detoxification. The liver in particular must be supported.
Ensuring adequate vitamin and mineral intake is crucial. It is especially important to keep an eye on mineral intake when dealing with heavy metal toxicity, as the body uses metals in place of essential minerals when we are deficient.
Once detox pathways have been enhanced with the help of nutritious foods and, often, vitamin and mineral supplements, a more direct approach to safely eliminating built-up toxins can be used; this is best discussed with your practitioner.
It is important to drink lots of filtered water, exercise regularly, reduce inflammatory foods, sugar, and white flour, and get enough sleep and rest. Sweating regularly using a sauna or detox bath can be very helpful as well.
In addition to strengthening the body’s detoxification pathways, it’s important to identify and repair any gut imbalances, which can contribute to overall toxic load and hinder recovery.
The prevalence of environmental toxins may seem overwhelming, but the more we can be aware of the risks, identify the signs and symptoms, and make lifestyle choices (and purchasing decisions) that reduce our exposure while supporting our detoxification pathways, the better.
If you’re interested in learning more, or finding out how you can start properly detoxifying, request a consult here.
Have questions? Let me know in the comments below!