Toxins are poisonous substances produced within an organism
Toxicants are synthetically produced (i.e. in manufacturing)
Common toxins/toxicants include heavy metals, bisphenols from plastics, and glyphosate pesticide
Reducing toxic exposure is the best way to help the body avoid toxic damage
Exercise, fasting, and saunas may all help detox pathways
Several nutrients can also aid innate detoxification pathways
Detoxes and ‘cleanses’ are some of the most popular diets available and while they probably won’t help you to lose any more weight than a good diet or improve your body’s ability to remove toxins, certain nutrients and lifestyle changes can help to support your body’s own, amazing, innate detoxification pathways.
What are ‘Toxins’
Toxins are poisonous substances produced either within the body or another organism while synthetically created ‘toxins’ are technically called toxicants. For simplicity, I’ll refer to them all as toxins in this article. While they sound scary (and some are!) we need to also remember that many toxic chemicals are produced as part of normal bodily processes, or might be ingested in tiny amounts as part of a normal, healthy diet, or in normal and appropriate levels from environmental exposure, so it’s important to remember the old adage, the dose defines the poison!
How does the body detoxify?
Because the body produces some toxic by-products in the body from normal metabolic processes, and the inevitability of exposure to some toxic chemicals and heavy metals in the environment, the body has developed sophisticated detoxification pathways to excrete these chemicals. The liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal system, skin, and lungs all play various roles in the excretion of toxins, through various processes such as methylation, metabolism, or conjugation which produce chemical end-products that can be more easily excreted. Some chemicals can be difficult to convert and excrete and can accumulate in the body, especially in fat tissue (i.e. organophosphate pesticides and herbicides, and heavy metals).
Some of the more common toxins and toxicants
‘Heavy metals’ are technically metals with high densities, atomic weights, or atomic numbers, but opinions can differ on what exactly constitutes a heavy metal. Heavy metals can include nutrients like iron, cobalt, and zinc, which are essential for health and yet are toxic in large doses, but typically, when people refer to heavy metals in the context of health, they are referring to metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury, which are toxic in even small amounts. Interestingly, in extremely small amounts they might act as essential or conditionally essential nutrients too! However, modern processing of foods and consumer products, and environmental pollution can accumulate these toxins into dangerous amounts. So, in the case of heavy metals, the old adage, the poison is in the dose, is very appropriate!
Elevated levels of this mineral are highly toxic and very dangerous. Arsenic is found in minute doses in many foods and in drinking water and in these minute amounts might be an essential trace nutrient. (1) Based on mammalian studies, a recommended dose of arsenic per day for health is between 12.5 and 25 μg, and people take in around 12-50 μg per day through a normal diet. (1, 2) The World Health Organization (WHO) has set a safe limit of <10 μg /L for drinking water.
Cadmium (Cd) is a heavy metal found commonly in the environment from natural occurrence and contamination. Smokers have the highest exposure to cadmium, while everyday foods are the highest source of cadmium for the non-smoking population. Foods contributing most to dietary cadmium are cereals and cereal products, vegetables, nuts and pulses, starchy roots or potatoes, and meat and meat products. Due to their high consumption of cereals, nuts, oilseeds and pulses, vegetarians can have a higher dietary exposure to this heavy metal. Cadmium contamination is of concern because it can cause kidney failure, bone demineralisation, and is a carcinogen. The average levels in food have been found to be (approx. 200 μg/kg). (3) A tolerable amount of 7 μg/kg body weight, per week, has previously been set by the European Food Safety Authority, or around 76 μg per day.
Lead, is a major contaminant of drinking water and food and is extremely toxic at even small doses, and has been shown to hinder neuronal development, particularly in infants. (1)
Mercury poses severe risks to the development of children in utero and in early life. A tolerable amount has been set by the World Health Organisation of 1.6 μg/kg body weight, per week, (4) or around 17 μg per day for an average weight woman.
Bisphenols such as bisphenol A (BPA) and bisphenol S (BPS) are chemical ‘plasticisers’ that function as raw materials for the production of many plastics including storage containers, food and beverage packaging, and lacquers and sealants for a range of other products (such as the BPS containing treatments on thermal cash register receipts). (5) These plasticisers have been found in food, house dust, rivers and lakes, and personal care products, (6, 7) and have been identified in human sera, saliva, and urine. (8) They are known to cause appreciable health harms and are toxic to a range of animals and organisms, including humans. (9, 10) As knowledge of the harms of BPA has become more well known, there has been a movement towards using different bisphenols in the place of BPA. This has led to an increase in exposure to other chemicals, in particular BPAF, BPF, and BPS and this has resulted in similar or even greater levels of exposure and accumulation of these chemicals in humans. (11) The various bisphenols; BPA, BPAF, BPB, BPF, and BPS have been shown to exhibit anti-thyroid, oestrogenic or antiandrogenic properties along with hormone-disrupting effects, toxicity and damage to both cells and genes, reproductive toxicity, immune dysfunction, dioxin-like effects, nephrotoxicity, and neurotoxicity (toxicity to the brain and central nervous system) and are carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals). (10-13)
Glyphosate (commercially often seen as “Roundup”) is an extremely common herbicide. Its use has become so common that glyphosate residue can be found in many foods, in water, and in many commonly used products (including medical gauze, tampons, and personal care products). While it has been listed as a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Cancer Research, its effects on human health are controversial, with some claiming that the chemical is safe in the amount humans are exposed to, while others claim there are very real health risks from low-dose exposure. Overall, the effect of glyphosate on health is likely to be very complex in nature as there are potential effects on hormones, and likely detrimental effects on the microbiome, which require further research. (14)
Reducing effects of toxins
Choose supplements tested for heavy metals
Many supplement companies test their products to meet stringent guidelines for heavy metal contamination.
Choose organic foods
Organic does not always mean low in toxins and toxicants but they are likely to be lower in pesticide and herbicide residue and environmental pollutants.
Choose foods from countries with more stringent quality controls
Some developing nations can have laxer environmental and pollution controls, and this can affect even ‘organic’ foods. It is safest to choose foods and materials from countries with more stringent environmental pollution laws and those known to have lower levels of heavy metals in groundwater and soil.
Reduce the use of plastics
Replace plastic storage containers with glass wherever possible. If using plastic, make sure that it is only for short periods of time and try to avoid putting acidic or fat-containing foods and beverages in plastic for any length of time. One of the most important things you can do is to never heat up food in the microwave in plastic containers! Stick to glass or microwave-safe ceramics when using the microwave to heat up food.
Exercise can promote greater metabolic activity which might speed the clearance of toxins from the body. It is also useful to offset some of the negative effects that can result from some toxins and toxicants by helping to improve oxidative control, increase insulin sensitivity, and encourage the clearance of damaged and dysfunctional tissue from the body. Endurance exercise-trained rats are able to maintain glutathione status (an important antioxidant involved in detoxification) during paracetamol toxicity compared to untrained rats. (15)
Occasional or intermittent fasting can help the body to deal with some of the effects of environmental toxins and toxicants by modulating inflammation, encouraging the removal of dysfunctional and damaged tissue, and improved antioxidant pathways and insulin sensitivity. (16-20)
Saunas have re-emerged in popularity in recent years because various ‘heat shock proteins’ elicited by higher temperatures might be of benefit to health. Several studies have also shown sauna-based detoxes improved health symptom scores and neurotoxicity scores during detoxification methamphetamine and other illicit drug exposure. (21, 22)
Nutrients that can aid detoxification
Many of the potential toxins (toxicants) that we can be exposed to promote oxidative and other damage in the body. So, nutrients that might help us to avoid accumulating toxins, encourage their detoxification and excretion, and reduce damage are of particular interest. Oxidation, for example, is a normal and essential part of many cellular processes, however excessive oxidation is damaging. Our natural, internal antioxidant pathways rely on a healthy liver, and various micronutrient and macronutrients co-factors. Most of the research that has been performed on dietary and supplemental interventions that might help in various aspects of detox or resistance to toxic chemicals has been performed in animals (due mainly to the ethics of exposing humans to toxic chemicals!) This research offers a glimpse into some nutrition interventions that might improve the resilience of the body.
Reduced accumulation and improved excretion
- Spirulina and dandelion might help to reduce mercury accumulation. (23) Spirulina with zinc increases the excretion of arsenic in chronic arsenic poisoning, (24) and absorbs cadmium. (25)
- Chlorella may be useful in inhibiting the absorption of dioxins via food and the reabsorption of dioxins stored already in the body in the intestinal tract, thus preventing the accumulation of dioxins within the body. (26) Research performed in mice also suggests that mercury excretion is enhanced by chlorella. (27, 28)
- Milk thistle might help to reduce the entry of toxins into cells (29, 30)
- Folate is critical to the metabolism of arsenic. (31)
- Alpha-lipoic acid supports detoxification processes. (32)
- Glycine was found to be effective for increasing glutathione levels, and reduced malondialdehyde levels and decreased lead levels in bone (with extremely high doses of around 1000mg per kg bodyweight in subject animals). (33)
Reduced oxidation and damage from toxins and toxicants
- Treatment with cysteine, methionine, vitamin C and thiamine can reverse oxidative stress associated with arsenic exposure and result in a reduction in tissue arsenic levels(34).
- Spirulina and dandelion enriched diets reduce lead and mercury-related oxidation. (23, 35)
- Spirulina, ginseng, onion and garlic decrease lipid peroxidation and increase endogenous antioxidant levels. (36, 37)
- Curcumin, resveratrol, Vitamin C, E, selenium and zinc and the bioflavonoid quercetin can effectively protect against cadmium-induced lipid peroxidation and reduce the adverse effect of cadmium on antioxidant status. (38-40)
- Curcumin significantly protects against lipid peroxidation induced by both lead and cadmium. (41)
- Milk thistle reduces oxidative damage from toxicant exposure. (29, 30)
The body has an amazing capacity to remove toxins and toxicants and while many detox pills and potions won’t do anything more than a good diet based on natural and unrefined foods, lifestyle changes and dietary additions can help to support your own internal detoxification pathways to work ‘as nature intended’. Eating a varied nutrient-dense, organic diet, exercising, getting enough sleep and occasional fasting can help us to reduce damage from toxins and toxicants and optimise the excretion of any chemical nasties that we might be exposed to.
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