Staying Healthy in a Toxic World
There are more than 50,000 synthetic chemicals that are used commonly around the world. Food chemicals, pesticides, herbisides, solvents, gases, drugs, and heavy metals are some to name a few. Some of these we actually consume deliberately, while others may be ingested or absorbed without even knowing it no matter how careful you are.
These toxins all have some negative impact on our tissues and metabolic systems before the body can detoxify and excrete them. Some chemicals stimulate a particular response from cells – this is what happens when we take prescribed or “recreational” drugs. Other small molecules can possibly trigger an intense immune reaction, like asthma. The really dangerous chemicals directly affect your body, destroying enzymes and cells or even altering your DNA. Frightening! Fortunately we have ways to deal with these nasties.
Your body is already designed to eliminate toxins
Our ancestors also had to deal with toxins. Plants produce specific compounds for their own protection. For humans some of these compounds are mildly irritating, others are dangerous poisons. Of course we’ve learned to avoid these natural toxins, or we neutralise them through various cooking methods. However we have always ingested a certain amount with our food. Through evolution we have developed various mechanisms for eliminating natural toxins. These same mechanisms are also capable of dealing with most modern chemicals – in moderate amounts.
The liver is a lifeguard
The liver is the body’s main Detox Centre. Drugs, alcohol, caffeine and natural plant toxins and other chemicals are usually quickly dealt with by the liver, which has specialised systems for converting toxins into less harmful forms so they can be excreted. However when exposed to large doses it can become overloaded, creating serious problems in other organs as well as the liver itself. Some toxins may be stored in fatty tissues if they cannot be immediately dealt with. When given the opportunity and support, the liver can release, neutralise and excrete them.
Antioxidant protection from food
Modern chemicals are a source of free radical damage in our bodies. Free radicals are highly reactive, unstable molecules that cause dangerous chain reactions in our cells and enzymes. They occur naturally as a result of energy production and exposure to sunlight, but are also created by pollutants, rancid fats, drugs, radiation, heavy metals and other toxins.
Antioxidants are our main line of defence against free radicals, converting them into less dangerous compounds. Some antioxidants come directly from our diet, such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E and flavonoids. We also have various antioxidant enzyme systems for neutralising free radicals. Our ability to create these enzymes depends on the availability of amino acids (from protein), vitamins and minerals. A good diet enhances our ability to cope with chemical toxins, as well as other forms of environmental stress.
Why do chemicals affect some people more than others?
Most of us appear to cope on a daily basis with chemical pollution, even if the cumulative stress is one factor behind increasing rates of cancer, heart disease and other diseases. However for some people environmental toxins are a more immediate, serious health problem. Some people suffer “chemical hypersensitivity”, reacting severely to even low doses of a wide range of chemicals. Either through toxic overload or dietary insufficiency, the body’s natural detoxification mechanisms have become overwhelmed. If this is the case for you, seek professional advice on ways to strengthen the body and eliminate unnecessary stress.
Young children are vulnerable to toxins as their protective systems have not yet fully developed. During pregnancy and while breast-feeding it is particularly important for woman to eat well and take care to avoid chemical exposure.
Three ways to stay healthy in a toxic environment:
1) Minimise exposure
Learn about what chemicals may be in your environment and actively avoid them where possible. Consider household cleaners, personal care products and your workplace.
Of course we want to avoid eating chemicals with our food. Organic, whole foods are the best option, where possible. When this is not available consider these points:
- Fresh, seasonal vegetables and fruit will have the least chemicals
- Wash produce well. Peel fruit and cucumbers.
- Some preservatives and other food additives are harmless, but study labels carefully and learn about the possible effects of any additives.
- When buying processed foods support companies that are actively aware of quality and health issues.
2) Enhance the body’s natural ability to deal with toxins.
Build a strong immune system and ensure you have a good supply of antioxidant nutrients:
- Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, at least some of it raw. These are rich in many nutrients, especially the powerful antioxidant Vitamin C
- Eat protein regularly, balanced with complex carbohydrates and good fats. Sulphur-containing amino acids are essential for producing antioxidant enzymes. Eggs (free range, organic!) are a good source.
- Obtain Vitamin E from high quality vegetable oils, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
- Selenium, zinc, manganese and copper are vital minerals for the detoxifying enzymes. These are best obtained from whole foods.
- Fibre-rich whole foods help ensure that toxins are regularly cleared through the bowels.
- High quality wholefood supplements such as spirulina and barleygrass can provide valuable antioxidants and nutrients to support the immune system.
- Minimise food and drinks that burden the liver, such as alcohol, caffeine and refined sugar. Alcohol severely depletes our antioxidant stores.
3) Detoxify gently
If the body is loaded with heavy metals or other toxins a strict fast can bring on violent reactions. A properly managed fast may have huge benefits; however I suggest you fast only under professional supervision. Here are other more gentle ways to help your body detox:
- Avoid over-eating to allow the digestive system to work optimally.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and green leafy vegetables stimulate and support the detox capabilities of the liver.
- Stimulate the lymphatic system with light exercise.
- Minerals compete with each other for binding sites in the body. Increasing dietary minerals such as zinc can help the release of toxic heavy metals. Good sources are sea vegetables such as wakame, nori or kombu as well as nuts, seeds and whole grains. Try this recipe that uses seaweed: Fresh Corn Salad
- Eat protein regularly to support antioxidant enzymes.
We can’t escape industrial chemicals. They are part of the environment now, in even the most “untouched” areas of the earth. Fortunately perhaps, for most healthy humans a tiny amount of background chemical pollution can actually stimulate and strengthen detoxifying mechanisms in the body. Without doubt it is essential to minimise the chemicals we absorb by becoming aware of the sources and avoiding them where possible. However there is no point in being fanatical about this (unless you know you are hypersensitive).
Do what you can to avoid chemicals and focus on building your immune system and antioxidant protection.