What are Environmental Toxins and Why Should You Care about Your Shampoo?
Our bodies have incredible detoxification mechanisms lined up when we are exposed to toxins. I mean, really really incredible. You may not think so if you are still recovering from your boating drinking adventure over the weekend, but as you’ll learn, the poison is in the dose. Plus, just because we can detox doesn’t mean we should keep testing our body’s capabilities and limits. From interactions on our skin from shampoos, lotions, body washes, cleansers, and deodorant, to the air we breath, to the food we cook! We are constantly being exposed to toxins and CONTANTLY detoxing. Exposure, both acute and chronic can lead to some very serious problems. For example, research has tied endocrine disrupters, like BPA, to interfering and mimicking the body’s natural circulating hormones. This can really throw the body’s natural hormone production off and can lead to serious disruption to sensitive biological systems, especially when we think about exposure of young kids. Even low doses of toxins can have huge effects when they far outnumber naturally circulating hormones (1). So lets talk about what toxins are, where they come from, and how we can limit exposure.
What are Environmental Toxins?
Environmental toxins can be naturally-occurring compounds or man-made chemicals. A few common ones include:
Many of these have been shown to negatively affect human health. Radon, formaldehyde, and benzene have been shown to be carcinogenic (2); BPA, pesticides, and phthalates act as endocrine disruptors and cause organ failure; lead, mercury, and cadmium can also cause organ failure as well as developmental problems. Making sure exposure is limited during pregnancy for infants in utero, as well as after pregnancy through childhood development is imperative in avoiding repercussions.
A lot of people understand the threat of lead toxicity and the importance of limiting exposure to old paint and old pipes so I won’t dive too much into that, but if you do not know much about lead and how to limit exposure, follow the links I attach toward the end of this article. Mercury is a little less recognized but still on many people’s radar. It can be found in water supply, soil, and as a byproduct of pollution, burning of fossil fuel, and mining (2). The mercury in our diet (methylmercury) is mostly avoided by watching seafood intake, but it can show up in many other products: livestock who are fed contaminated fishmeal, plants grown in contaminated soil, foods stored in pottery with mercury-based paint, chemicals on food crops, protein powder, and fish oil supplements (2).
Endocrine disruptors often mimic estrogen and can pose a huge risk during prenatal and early postnatal development of organ and neural systems. Pregnant or breast-feeding women should be VERY cautious with their exposure. These compounds are found in many everyday products like:
- Plastic bottles and containers
- Food can liners
- Flame retardants
Additionally, low-dose exposure to BPA has been shown to produce a wide variety of problems like obesity, infertility, aggressive behavior, early onset of puberty, hormone-dependent cancers, and lower testosterone levels and sperm production (2).
Another form of toxin exposure comes through pesticides. Pesticides kill, repel, or control certain forms of plant or animal life that interfere with successful growth. These include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, disinfectants, and compounds used to control rodents. There are over 4.5 BILLION POUNDS of pesticides used each year in the United States (2)! You will find many of these used during conventional food production, hence the weariness around consumption of inorganic foods, and the move toward eating more organically grown. This is to decrease your level of exposure since we don’t really know the long-term effects of these pesticides. However, research from the National Institute of Health has shown farmers who use insecticides to experience an increase in headaches, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, hand tremors, and other neurological symptoms. Additionally, licensed pesticide applicators have a 20-200% increased rick of developing diabetes (2).
Over two decades worth of research has shown air pollution to trigger heart attacks, strokes, and irregular heart rhythms, particularly in people who have or are at risk for heart disease (3). The itty bitty particles in the air find their way to the depths of your lungs and provoke inflammation that moves into the bloodstream and damages blood vessels (3). Those people with compromised heart or related conditions need to be EXTRA careful when exercising outdoors near busy roads or industrial areas.
It is important to recognize that the problem lies in the dose and volume of exposure, and it is highly individual. Using a plastic cup on occasion isn’t going to kill you. However, not being mindful of the amount of times you use that plastic cup could end up really hurting you.
Some tips to limit exposure:
- Wash and scrub ALL produce
- Purchase mostly organic produce, or at least stick to the dirty dozen
- Grow your own garden!
- Minimize use of plastic containers with the #7 or #3 on the bottom
- Don’t microwave plastic food containers, and don’t wash them in th dishwasher or with harsh detergents
- Reduce use of canned foods and eat mostly fresh or frozen
- Choose glass, porcelain or stainless steel cups, containers, water bottles, and travel mugs
- Look for BPA bottles and toys
- Don’t smoke
- Keep plants in the home
- Use fewer products with “fragrance”
- Eating a variety of nutrient-dense, whole foods can help reduce chances of toxicity (1), likely due to their innate antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties; intake of essential minerals reduce the uptake of heavy metals, too
- Control room humidity to prevent mold growth
- Improve your gut health- avoid antibiotics, increase fermented vegetable intake, and increase resistant starch intake; of course, keep drinking that bone broth
- Be mindful of the beauty products you use- check out these articles by Chris Kresser to learn more about choosing the best beauty and hygiene products: Here, here, and here
- Decrease intake of processed foods and refined sugars, both of which can cause inflammation and susceptibility to toxins
Alright, I hope you guys take this into consideration when considering your next body wash, deodorant, Tupperware, or produce purchase! I know I only went into detail on a few of the toxins, but they are all highly problematic. This is really no joke. Symptoms can manifest in a variety of ways, and if you have your diet dialed in, are exercising regularly, and are still struggling with shortness of breath, fatigue, irritability, headache, weakness, abdominal problems like nausea and cramping, and/or insomnia, or others that are hurting your quality of life, you may want to ask your doctor more about these toxins in your system. I would also not want to wait until you feel these symptoms! If you can check it out now instead of when you’re actually sick, that would be the best. Feel free to give me a shout with any questions too!
Therese Martinez, MS, RD, CPT