What are and how do toxins get into the body? A toxin is any substance (natural or synthetic) which causes damage to an organism. In humans toxins can be food based or environmental (exogenous) or produced in the body during normal metabolic processes (endogenous). The liver is the main organ responsible for the biotransformation of harmful toxins along with the gut wall but the skin, lungs, kidneys and lymphatic system are involved in the removal of toxins from the body. Toxicity is the capacity of a chemical agent to adversely affect an organism and the effect can be allergenic, neurotoxic or carcinogenic.
1. Food based toxins
Food based toxins can be naturally present in the food as antinutrients, so called as they impair the absorption of important nutrients from the food by the body. Examples of common antinutrients include tannins found in tea and coffee and phytates present in nuts and seeds. This is why it is recommended to drink tea and coffee away from meal times to minimise their antinutrient effects. Soaking and sprouting nuts and seeds can help remove antinutrient phytates from their outer coating and increase nutrient bioavailability. Other antinutrients include sugar, trans fats, caffeine and carbonated beverages. Bacterial food toxins such as E. coli and campylobacter can be present particularly in raw meats, unpasteurised milk and cheese as well as salad vegetables. Mycotoxins (produced by fungi) are common in grains such as maize, corn and rice but also in wines, honey, figs and cocoa.
However not all food based toxins are naturally occurring, some come in the form of food additives including colours, preservatives, antioxidants, sweeteners, flavourings, emulsifiers and stabilisers. Some food additives are natural i.e. substances found naturally in a foodstuff and are extracted from it to be used in another e.g. beetroot juice is used to colour sweets. Others are nature identical which are manmade copies of substances that occur naturally but many are artificial and are made synthetically by food manufacturers. An E number signifies that a food additive has been approved in the EU and means that it has been fully evaluated for safety by the Scientific Committee on Food or the European Food Safety Authority. But are food additives safe? The ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) of a food additive is the amount that can be consumed daily over a lifetime without any adverse effect on health. However many processed foods contain multiple additives and the combined effect of these has not been investigated. Many individual food additives have negative effects on health, for example the colouring tartrazine (E102) has been linked to hyperactivity in children as well as asthma and allergic reactions. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavour enhancer found in many packaged foods can cause headaches, nausea and vomiting and is considered an excitotoxin which can cause the death of neurons in the brain.
2. Environmental toxins
Toxins present in the external environment can also enter the body through cosmetics, cleaning products, pesticides, exhaust fumes, solvents, storage and cooking equipment, alcohol, drugs and cigarette smoke. They are also known as xeno-biotics as they are foreign to the body. Some of these contain endocrine-disrupting toxins including toxic metals, solvents, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenols), organophosphates, phthalates and BPA (Bispenol A). Endocrine disruptors can mimic the effects of oestrogen in the body which affects fats cells (adipocytes), both their number and metabolism. For example cosmetics are laden with parabens, synthetic colours and phthalates that contain carcinogens and endocrine-disruptors. Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) including PCBs and dioxins are widely used chemicals in crop production to prevent pests and diseases in grains, fruits and vegetables. They were introduced in industrial production after World War II but due to their half-life of 20-30 years and the fact that they accumulate in fatty tissue many still persist in the environment and food chains today through consumption of fat-containing foods such as fish, meat and dairy products. BPA used to make plastic storage containers, water bottles, cling film and to coat the inside of food and drinks cans as well as in building products, cars, bicycles and planes breaksdown easily when exposed to heat, acidic conditions or washed with strong detergents. It can also be absorbed via the air and through the skin.
3. Endogenous toxins
These are chemicals produced in the body as a direct result of metabolism. The liver is very effective at detoxifying waste products in preparation for their elimination from the body. Metabolites are eliminated from the body via a number of pathways; exhaled air via the lungs, urine via the kidneys, bile via the gastrointestinal tract, sweat via the skin, saliva via the mouth mucosa, hair and nails via normal growth and cell turnover and milk via the mammary glands (especially relevant in breastfeeding mothers).
So why are toxins a threat to health?
Bioaccumulation is the build up of a substance in a tissue or organ and this is one of the main dangers of toxins. Many xenobiotics or toxins are highly fat soluble and tend to accumulate in fat cells as well as in the fatty organs like the brain and endocrine tissues, hair and nails or bone. Toxins can affect the body at both an organ and cellular level. At an organ or system level the accumulation of toxins can affect the immune system leading to decreased resistance to infection and if the toxin is antigenic it can result in the manifestation of autoimmune diseases. It can inhibit metabolic pathways, increase inflammation and free radical damage thereby increasing the risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It can also disrupt hormonal balance. At a cellular level it can lead to cell injury and can damage the cell membrane (affecting it’s ability to take up or release nutrients, hormones and waste products) or the mitochondria, the ‘power house’ of the cell which is central to energy production. Some of the symptoms of toxin overload are mental fatigue or loss of concentration, headaches, dizziness, body aches, palpitations, shortness of breath, depression, anxiety, stress, mood swings, fatigue or lack of energy, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping.
What can you do to protect yourself?
You can start by reducing your exposure to toxins and thereby your toxic load. Toxic load is the total of all toxin exposures and their influences on the body. Factors including age, gender, comorbidities, diet, smoking, alcohol, stress, medications and combined exposure to other chemicals can all affect how well our bodies deal with toxic load. Toxins undergo biotransformation in the liver which happens in two phases. There are many ways in which you can support the liver in this process:
a. Increase nourishing foods
– cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, watercress, cabbage, sprouts, bok choi)
– quercetin-containing foods (apple, apricot, blueberries, alfalfa sprouts, green beans, black tea)
– allium-containing foods (onions, garlic, leeks, chives, scallions, shallots)
– ellagic acid-containing foods (grapes, pomegranate, walnuts, strawberries, raspberries)
– catechins (green tea, dark chocolate, red wine, cherries, berries)
– glutathione-containing foods (asparagus, avocado, walnuts)
– protein-rich foods, especially sulphur-containing amino acids (nuts, seeds, legumes esp. mung beans, fish, organic eggs and poultry)
– sulphur-rich foods (eggs, garlic, onion, leek, green leafy veg)
Many nutrients are required to support phase I and II and to neutralise free radicals leaked from phase I. Increasing your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, especially those high in the antioxidants selenium, zinc, vitamin A, C and E, bioflavonoids and alpha lipoic acid will provide the nutrients needed by the liver for biotransformation. These foods are also high in fibre which will support elimination through regular bowel movements.
b. Limit processed foods
These foods tend to contain a lot of E numbers, the long term effects of which are still not known.
c. Reduce pesticide exposure
Choose organic fruit and vegetables where possible. The Environmental Working Group in the U.S. publishes it’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean Fifteen’ list every year. Definitely opt for organic for any fruits and vegetables on the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list as these are most likely to be heavily sprayed with pesticides and are those that are eaten with the skin on.
d. Switch to cleaner cosmetics
Think about the products you are applying to your skin in particular but also hair. Cosmetics can contain a lot of harmful chemicals that are endocrine disruptors and potential carcinogens.
e. Drink cleaner water
Consider installing a water filtration system that will remove specific contaminants and soften water.
f. Other lifestyle measures
Limiting alcohol intake, avoiding tobacco smoke, reducing stress, getting enough sleep can all reduce exposure to toxins. Support excretion through dry body brushing, saunas, deep breathing and lymphatic drainage (massage, gentle exercise and stretching).
Reducing your overall exposure to toxins will in turn lower your toxic load and thereby the burden on the body, especially the liver. Although it is not possible to avoid toxins altogether by following the measures above you will mimimise the amount and types making their way into the body.