How Environmental Toxins Impact the Body
Upwards of 4 billion pounds of toxins are dumped into the environment every year, and that’s just in the United States (1). Despite how alarming this sounds, it underestimates the seriousness of the issue. There are over 80,000 chemicals emitted, and many of these toxins persist in the environment for years, creating a compounding effect. As such, there are significantly more toxins in the environment with each passing year.
Let that sink in for a moment…
Toxins, of course, don’t just mingle passively in the environment. They contaminate food, air, water, soil, and even dust within your own home. From here, they get into the body where they can cause serious harm over time.
How Many Toxins Are in the Body?
According to environmental researchers, we are very toxic. One study, published in the Journal of Toxicology, found that blood samples from humans tested positive for 3,221 environmental toxins out of the 3,820 chemicals tested (2).
Additionally, multiple studies by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention), have reported that almost all blood and urine samples of Americans are contaminated with harmful environmental toxins including BPA, mercury, thallium, phthalates, and several variants of PFAS, which are toxic “forever” chemicals known to disrupt thyroid function and cause liver damage.
This research is a harrowing sign that toxin exposure is unavoidable. With that in mind, this article will explain the basics of everything you need to know about environmental toxins, how they affect the body, and how to protect yourself from harm.
What are Toxins?
It’s a common belief that toxins are any substance in the environment such as industrial chemicals or heavy metals that can cause harm to humans, plants, or animals. This is only partially true. Toxins are any natural substance that can cause harm. This includes mycotoxins such as from black mold, and even snake venom.
Toxicants, on the other hand, are man-made chemicals known to cause harm such as BPA found in plastics. For simplicity, however, we’ll refer to all toxicants as toxins.
Are Toxins Affecting You?
It’s a trick question. Research clearly indicates that most of the world’s population is exposed to a variety of environmental toxins. So, it’s not a question of if toxins are affecting you, it’s about determining how much toxins are affecting you.
In truth, determining how much toxins are affecting your health is challenging. That’s because the symptoms of toxin exposure or accumulation are exceptionally varied. Generally speaking, there are two broad categories of symptoms: 1.) common general toxicity symptoms and 2.) specific toxin symptoms.
Common General Toxicity Symptoms
The symptoms that fall under this category are not toxin-specific. Most people experience at least one or more of these symptoms—no matter which toxins they’re exposed to.
Dr. Mark Hyman, a functional medicine physician, developed a toxicity questionnaire that screens for common symptoms of toxin accumulation in the body (3). Some of the most common symptoms included in the questionnaire include:
- Fatigue, restlessness, or sluggishness
- Mood swings, irritability, or nervousness
- Dark circles or bags under the eyes
- Frequent headaches
- Achy joints or muscle soreness
- Poor concentration and brain fog
- Excessive weight; some toxins contribute to obesity (4)
- Frequent illness due to immune compromise
- Hives or itchy skin rashes
Symptoms of Specific Toxin Exposure
Every single toxin exerts unique effects on the body. This means every toxin can present with different symptoms in addition to those mentioned above.
Mercury, for example, has an affinity for damaging the brain and kidneys. Exposure to this neurotoxin is associated with symptoms such as restlessness, tremors, mood swings, brain fog, and insomnia (5, 6). Studies have also shown that children exposed to mercury in the womb can experience developmental delays in fine motor skills.
Another example is phthalates (pronounced “thal-aytes”), which are commonly found in plastics, fragrances, cosmetics, children’s toys, and food packaging. Phthalates are lipophilic meaning they can be absorbed through the skin and stored in fat cells. Research suggests that phthalates can disrupt hormones (namely testosterone) and adversely affect childhood development (7).
Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are countless additional toxins–many of which present differently, depending on whether they impact the liver, kidneys, endocrine system (hormones), lungs, heart, or the brain.
What Makes Environmental Toxins So… Toxic?
Every toxin has a unique mechanism of action. Some are much more dangerous than others. Generally speaking, most toxins cause harm by creating oxidative damage, triggering inflammation, disrupting hormones, interfering with immune function, and impacting brain health.
To make matters worse, many toxins you get exposed to throughout your life accumulate in the body. Toxicologists use the term “pools” to describe areas of the body that are prone to accumulating toxins. The most common toxin pools include bone, adipose tissue (fat cells), the liver, and kidneys (8).
These pools slowly “leak” as your body creates new cells. This means you are continuously exposed to both toxins released from pools in the body and toxins in the environment.
Another factor that makes toxins harmful is their unpredictable nature. Most government safety guidelines operate with the idea that all toxins have a linear dose-response curve. This simply means that higher exposure doses increase the level of harm and lower doses result in less severe harm.
The problem is, not all toxins behave in this way. Some toxins have a non-linear dose-response curve. These toxins behave unpredictably and can produce harmful effects even at very low levels of exposure while having reduced effects at higher doses.
Since most safety regulations operate under the assumption that environmental toxins follow a linear-dose response curve, it leaves you particularly vulnerable to toxins that don’t follow this pattern.
Lastly, chronic exposure to toxins is metabolically stressful for your body. The body has incredible systems in place to protect itself. But these systems require biochemical resources. As such, long-term exposure can deplete your body of these resources which means you will be more susceptible to the effects of all toxins.
Common Toxins and their Effects on the Body
To put things into perspective, here is a list of common environmental toxins, where they are found, along with their known destructive properties:
- Adverse Effects: learning and behavior problems, developmental delay, lower IQ, and damage to the brain and nervous system (9). As is the case with most toxins, children are particularly vulnerable to these effects.
- Sources of Exposure: lead-based paints, drinking water, low-quality nutritional supplements and spices, dust, soil, air pollution, imported lead-glazed ceramics, shooting ranges (bullets often contain lead), and vinyl window blinds.
- Adverse Effects: extensive oxidative damage to the kidneys and brain, depletes selenium (a critical mineral for immune health), cripples glutathione which is the most important chemical made by the body for natural detoxification (10, 11).
- Sources of Exposure: air pollution, dental fillings, seafood, and wildfire smoke.
- Adverse Effects: developmental defects in children, reduced birth weight, hormone disruption, fertility issues, weight gain, and blood sugar dysregulation (12).
- Sources of Exposure: eating or drinking from contaminated packaging, fragrances, cosmetics, dust, plastics, vinyl flooring, medical tubing, drinking straws, and toys.
Pesticides & Herbicides
- Adverse Effects: Nervous system toxicity, hormone disruption, DNA damage, kidney damage, and much more (13, 14, 15).
- Sources of Exposure: food and beverages, working on a farm, contaminated water, and air pollution in agricultural regions.
- Adverse Effects: growth and developmental harm, thyroid dysfunction, immune dysregulation, liver damage (16).
- Sources of Exposure: drinking water, contaminated food, fish, food packaging, and waterproof clothing.
How Toxins Enter the Body
As seen in the list above, toxins can enter the body through a variety of pathways. Most toxins, however, enter through one of the following primary pathways:
- Respiratory: toxins are often inhaled via indoor and outdoor air. Once in the lungs, they can gain access to the bloodstream and circulate throughout your body.
- Ingestion: Food and water is often contaminated with a wide variety of plasticizers, pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals. How much is absorbed into the bloodstream from the digestive system varies with each toxin.
- Skin contact: some toxins are lipid soluble which means they can get absorbed through the skin upon contact. Phthalates, for example, are lipid-soluble toxins commonly found in cosmetics and are rapidly absorbed.
How to Detox to Rid Toxins from the Body
Removing toxins from the body is an essential strategy for protecting yourself from harm. This is where detoxification comes into play. What exactly is detoxification?
Detoxification is a process that involves mobilizing, neutralizing, and excreting any toxins in the body so they can no longer cause harm. For those with acute exposure (high one-time dose) it likely requires the support of a clinician trained in environmental medicine or toxicology.
But for the average Joe dealing with everyday chronic exposure to toxins, there are several steps you can take on your own to ramp up the body’s detoxification potential:
- Exposure Control: The number one rule of any detoxification protocol is to first reduce your exposure. This can include purchasing organic food when possible, looking up all of your cosmetics and cleaning products on the EWG database, dusting your home frequently, installing a water filtration system in your home, and using an in-home air purifier with a carbon and HEPA filter.
- Sweat it out: Many toxins including heavy metals are excreted when we sweat. Using a sauna or high-intensity exercise are great options to get yourself sweating and aid in detoxification.
- Get moving: Physical activity can help mobilize any toxins stored in fat cells. This is why exercising to the point of sweating is an excellent way to get rid of toxins in the body. Exercise with profuse sweating appears to be slightly more effective than sauna by itself (17).
- Fiber: Found in many fruits and vegetables, fiber serves as a toxin binder in the intestinal tract. When toxins are bound by fiber, it encourages excretion and discourages absorption. Eating at least 30 grams of fiber per day with plenty of water is a great place to start. If you’re struggling to get enough fiber, consider an organic fiber mix as an easy way to boost your intake.
- Liquid Zeolite: The zeolite Clinoptilolite is a natural mineral that acts as an effective binder to heavy metals and other toxins. Thanks to its negative charge, it attracts and traps positively-charged toxins, which includes heavy metals. Liquid zeolite is a popular choice for detoxification because it is a gentle, easy way to help remove toxins.
- Hydration: drinking plenty of fluids is essential to avoid constipation and ensure things flow through the body as they should. Constipation is an issue because the longer your food sits in your digestive system, the more time toxins have to get absorbed or reabsorbed.
- Antioxidants: consuming plenty of superfood vegetables and berries that are rich in antioxidants will help protect your body from toxins. If you need help getting to your 5-9 servings of fruits and veggies daily, consider an organic green juice.
What is the Best Way to Detoxify the Body?
Given the fact that we are exposed to toxins daily, it’s important that detoxification is a daily activity too. Detoxification involves getting rid of accumulated toxins in the body, and preventing the absorption of toxins so that those toxins don’t harm our health.
While there are a variety of strategies, the easiest and most effective way to detoxify the body is to use liquid zeolite. This natural mineral acts as a binder, trapping toxins and heavy metals within its crystalline structure, before passing through the body via the excretory system (via urine). Natural zeolite also has GRAS status, meaning it is “generally recognized as safe” and so can be taken by all ages, and unlike some other detox protocols, it is safe for long-term use.
Since environmental toxins continue to accumulate in our food, water, and air, detoxing with liquid zeolite is a smart step to support your health. As toxins are removed, you may notice more energy, a lifting of brain fog, and many other benefits.