Environmental Toxins That Make Us Ill, Yet Don't Have to
How detox can help limit toxic burden and restore cognitive and physical health.
Elliot Dinetz, M.D.
The past 100 years of industrialization have brought about incredible change for our society, but only more recently have we awakened to the consequences of its byproducts. Environmental toxins, many of which are heavy metals naturally found in the earth’s crust, are constantly discharged into our atmosphere as a result of various manufacturing industries.
Though many are unaware of it, these toxins can be the cause of serious health implications. Recent estimates have found that environmental toxins contribute to over 100 chronic diseases and injuries — but moreover may account for nearly 13 million deaths per year. With growing efforts to restructure industries to use cleaner production methods, the question remains how we can help ourselves prevent such detrimental effects.
The first step is acknowledging certain limitations in our healthcare system. Chronic exposures to metals, such as lead, are not easy to identify. Many of us may remember the Flint water crisis, wherein both children and adults were severely affected by lead-contaminated water. This contamination went unnoticed until multiple unexplained symptoms started to pile up.
Unspecific symptoms that many people experience can easily throw off practitioners who are trained to pick up on acute metal toxicity, not chronic exposure. Often enough, when toxicity presents, it can mimic a psychiatric disorder, such as depression, which can lead to an incorrect diagnosis and subsequent treatment¹.
It is important to note that according to the US Preventive Service Task Force, the guidelines that help physicians determine what to screen patients for does not advise routine screening for toxic metals, despite the CDC having lowered the reference value that determines lead toxicity by half of what it was previously. It is therefore crucial that we grow awareness about the four most common toxic metals and where these are found.
Mercury is a large component of metal amalgam, teeth fillings, and also large predatory fish such as tuna and swordfish. Exhaust from automobiles also releases mercury, among other toxins. Mercury has been linked to both depression and anxiety and is known to impair memory in humans.
Cadmium is commonly found in certain jewelry, the plating of different metals, and even cigarettes. It has been associated with chronic kidney disease, due to its ability to damage renal cells when getting reabsorbed back into the body. Cadmium toxicity is also a cause of high blood pressure, neuropathy, and even low red blood cell count, which can also be caused by other toxic metals as well.
Known to be found in tap water supplies and certain pesticides, this metal has been associated with numerous health issues, including diabetes. Over time, arsenic is believed to accumulate in fat tissues, and a recent study showed that pregnant women with gestational diabetes were found to have significantly elevated arsenic levels compared to those who did not.
Lead toxicity effects neuropsychiatric development in children. Lead is used in folk medicine and has been found in cosmetics, old paint, and even children’s toys, which further stresses the importance of conscious consumerism.
In our modern society, we have to take it upon ourselves to help limit these exposures, but also we can utilize the detox process to rid them from ourselves as well. The human body uses key organs every minute of our lives to rid our bodies of toxins. Zinc helps prevent reabsorption of toxic metals back into our circulation so they can be excreted in urine. Many studies even show the inverse correlation between low zinc levels and elevated blood cadmium. Consuming plenty of foods with high zinc content, such as organic nuts and seeds, can be beneficial in raising zinc levels.
Recent data also shows the power of detoxifying our skin. Sweat has been shown to eliminate just as many toxins as our kidneys do. With cosmetic products often having mercury and other chemicals in them, it is crucial to practice daily exercise—and additionally, sauna use—for the purpose of sweating. Regular sauna use has been associated with increased life expectancy and lower Alzheimer’s disease risk, according to a large Finnish study. Fortunately, in the States, most gyms, health centers, and spas have saunas available for use today.
Lastly, routine bowel movements help eliminate toxic waste as well as prevent inflammation. Proper hydration and fiber consumption are both key for gut health maintenance. The gut is often referred to as our “second brain,” given the strong connection that it has to mental health. People who suffer from chronic constipation are at risk for associated health conditions like hemorrhoids, and more recent studies have linked it to gastrointestinal cancers. It has been long suspected that constipation’s change in the gut microbiome (the microbial ecosystem within the gastrointestinal tract) leads to inflammation that can both cause direct damage, influencing our immune system and thus increasing cancer risks. Being well attuned to your bowels may, therefore, have great implications for both your long and short term health.
It should come as no surprise that so many people have been migrating towards different holistic wellness approaches today, accounting for the trillions in consumer dollars spent annually in the wellness industry. A comprehensive approach appears to be a major key component to total body health and wellness. Acknowledging what can potentially be making you sick and making simple habit changes—such as avoiding certain aesthetic products and paying close attention to consuming pesticide-free food—can put you on the right path to preventing serious health consequences.
While no magic pill yet exists for many of our current health conditions today, the advancement of integrative medicine may help people better manage toxicity levels, and maximize bodily function through incorporating these systems-based approaches. Putting forth a little effort your own detox plan may certainly be a major step in the right direction for optimal health and longevity.
Bernhoft RA. Mercury toxicity and treatment: a review of the literature. J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:460508. doi:10.1155/2012/460508
About the Author
Elliot Dinetz, M.D., is a board-certified primary care physician with advanced certification in Functional & Integrative Medicine.
Psychology Today, May 29, 2020
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