Each year more than 4 billion pounds of chemical compounds are released into the environment. We are exposed to many of these environmental toxins in our daily lives.
Even something as seemingly benign as dyeing your hair can cause devastating effects on your health. Researchers at USC have found that women who regularly dye their hair are three times more likely to develop bladder cancer than those who don’t! Chemicals in hair dye can also damage the reproductive system and central nervous system.
There are many news stories of major diseases such as cancer being caused by exposure to various chemicals, and lead poisoning is so prevalent that children are usually tested for it as part of their routine annual exam when they turn one. It is obvious that toxic levels of chemicals can have a devastating effect on the health of the human body, but what about exposure to minuscule amounts over a long period of time? Do the toxins interact to magnify the damage to your body?
What Is an Environmental Toxin?
Environmental toxins are substances in our environment that are created by humans or occur naturally but are toxic to the human body. They can be found in air, water, food, beauty products, cleaning supplies and a wide variety of other sources. Naturally occurring environmental toxins include lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, aluminum, cadmium, and fluoride. Certain strains of mold release mycotoxins which are also incredibly damaging to our bodies.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recorded over 84,000 different chemicals in use since its inception in 1970. While many of these chemicals are no longer used, this is still an enormous number. They currently list 595 of these chemicals as toxic, but countless more have not undergone proper testing. Even worse, many of the chemicals have been tested to determine what levels cause obvious adverse effects such as cancer or death but have not determined if long term exposure to small doses negatively impacts the body. Unfortunately, even chemicals known to be toxic are still allowed for use in our products if they are used in small enough amounts.
How Environmental Toxins Impact Your Body.
It is well documented that environmental toxins wreak havoc on your body. While it would be a huge undertaking to list every harmful effect of every known toxin, there are certain classes of toxins which are easy to explain. The seven main classes of toxins are listed below. Some toxins only have one classification, but many are much more complex and fall under multiple classifications, causing a variety of possible symptoms and diseases.
Carcinogen is now a commonly used word which simply means cancer causing. Carcinogenic substances cause living tissue to develop cancer after being exposed to varying levels of the substance. However, even if you do not accumulate levels high enough to cause cancer, a carcinogen can still harm your body in other ways. Polluted air and water, processed foods and sugar, arsenic, cigarette smoke, asbestos, radiation, and heavy alcohol consumption are all examples of substances that act as carcinogens in our bodies.
A neurotoxin harms the nervous system, prevents it from functioning properly, and may eventually destroy the nerve tissue. They cause a wide variety of health problems, including permanent memory impairment, slurred speech, intellectual disability, dementia, epilepsy, brain tumors, and death. Some substances, such as chemical weapons and heavy metals including lead and mercury, are well known neurotoxins. Unfortunately, others are not so commonly known, which means people are blithely consuming these substances unaware of the damage being caused. Although less widely acknowledged, some major sources of neurotoxins in food are the sugar substitutes, aspartame and sucralose, and pesticides.
Endocrine Disruptors impact the endocrine system and alter hormonal functions. As hormones play a massive role in our health and metabolism, agents that disrupt this system can create widespread harm to your health. Some common problems include obesity, infertility, low testosterone, early onset puberty, and prostate and breast cancers. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences states, “Research shows that endocrine disruptors may pose the greatest risk during prenatal and early postnatal development when organ and neural systems are forming.” This means it is important to avoid endocrine disruptors while pregnant, for the healthy development of your baby. They are hard to avoid though, because it seems that endocrine disruptors can be found just about anywhere, including pharmaceuticals, pesticides, plastic bottles and cans, food, toys, and cosmetics.
Plastic bottles are a common source of endocrine disruptors.
Mutagens cause mutations in DNA. This leads to cancer and other disorders and the mutations can be passed down to future generations. Some preservatives in food, flame retardant chemicals in children’s sleepwear, and chemicals in hair dye are common sources of mutagens in daily life. We are also exposed to mutagens through radiation such as that from x-rays, PET scans, and CT scans.
Teratogens are agents which cause birth defects when the mother is exposed while pregnant. Some medications, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, mercury, lead, PCB’s, x-rays, radiation, and chemotherapy are all environmental toxins that act as teratogens.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are organic compounds that change to a gas state at room temperature. This allows them to permeate the air, which you then breathe. Most people have a large number of VOCs in their homes, as they are found in many things, including air freshener, craft supplies, paints, cleaning agents, cigarettes, and even nail polish remover containing acetone. VOCs build up in your body when you breathe or touch them, eventually causing allergic and immune reactions, and damaging your nervous system, liver, and kidneys. Some other health problems they cause are headaches, dizziness, fatigue, memory problems, and cancer.
Allergens are a common problem. They work a bit differently from your average environmental toxin. Rather than your body being harmed directly by the substance, your body recognizes the allergen as an intruder then your immune system overreacts to get rid of the allergen. According to the CDC more than 50 million American suffer from allergies each year. This means that over 15% of Americans deal with the frustrating and even terrifying reality of living with allergies! Allergic reactions present in a variety of ways. Hay fever, asthma, conjunctivitis, hives, eczema, dermatitis, and sinusitis are all common reactions. Food allergies can cause any of these problems, in addition to stomach pain and upset, dizziness and fainting, tingling or itching of the mouth, and swelling of the mouth, throat or face. A severe allergy can cause anaphylaxis, possibly resulting in death.
Symptoms of Exposure to Environmental Toxins
One of the difficulties in diagnosing health problems as being caused by environmental toxins lies in the fact that there is a wide array of symptoms, and each person will have a different reaction. Every person has a different mix of toxins built up in their bodies, which also impacts what symptoms are present. Additionally, once you become ill from exposure to one set of toxins, you are more likely to become reactive to additional toxins. Furthermore, most tests performed in the conventional medicine setting often come back normal, making it extremely difficult to find an accurate diagnosis. Any of the symptoms or conditions on the list below may indicate that your body has a buildup of environmental toxins.
● Anxiety, depression, irritability, emotional outbursts, mood swings
● Autoimmune diseases
● Brain fog or memory problems
● Canker sores
● Chronic infections
● Diarrhea or constipation
● Difficulty concentrating
● Endocrine disorders
● Fainting, dizziness or lightheadedness, vertigo
● Fatigue, difficulty recovering from exercise or daily activities
● Frequent respiratory infections
● Frequent urination and increased thirst
● Joint pain and stiffness
● Light, sound, or touch sensitivity
● Low or elevated blood pressure, fast heart rate
● Muscle weakness, cramps, and aches
● Nausea, vomiting, or stomach upset
● Neuropathy including numbness, tingling, and loss of coordination
● PMS symptoms and/or heavy or irregular periods
● Rashes, including blotching and redness
● Significant weight gain or weight loss
● Sinus congestion, wheezing, or other allergy symptoms
● Swelling of lips and face
● Young children are likely to develop abdominal complaint, headaches, and fatigue
How Can You Heal from Environmental Toxicity?
The easiest way to protect yourself is to be aware of the most common environmental toxins and reduce your exposure when possible. In 2003, researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, Commonweal, and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found “an average of 91 industrial compounds, pollutants, and other chemicals in the blood and urine of nine volunteers, with a total of 167 chemicals found in the group.” Although the use of many toxic substances is regulated, another study by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) found that “a large percentage of people who had their blood and urine tested carried pesticides above levels considered safe by government health and environmental agencies.” This shows the importance of being aware of environmental toxins and where they are found because the average person carries unsafe levels of toxic substances in their bodies. Only once you are aware of common sources of toxins can you begin eliminating them from your lifestyle. Some simple ways to begin reducing toxins are to decrease your use of plastics, buy organic when possible, filter your water, and avoid products that list “fragrance” as an ingredient.
If you suspect your condition or symptoms are due to environmental toxins, it is important to get the correct diagnosis. Since Integrative Medicine uses a holistic approach that takes into account your lifestyle and environment, not merely your symptoms, an Integrative Medicine practitioner can more easily help you discover if environmental toxins are the cause. At Temecula Center for Integrative Medicine, we have an experienced team focused on helping desperate and frustrated patients who have been seen by other physicians and practitioners but have not had success in treating their condition.
Although the average tests in conventional medicine usually will not help you find an accurate diagnosis, there are a variety of tests that are used in functional medicine to help determine if environmental toxins are the root cause of your poor health. Our doctors ask numerous questions leading to an in-depth discussion about many areas to help us decide if any tests are necessary and to discover the underlying cause of your symptoms.
Each person is unique, so your individual treatment plan may vary from that of another person with the same diagnosis. Various scientifically based treatments, along with lifestyle changes, can eliminate your symptoms through healing the root cause and bring you to better health.
The human body is designed to naturally process and excrete environmental toxins, but an abundance of environmental agents combined with poor diet and nutrition can lead to an overburdened system. Metabolic detoxification may be a part of your treatment plan because it helps by providing advanced, targeted nutrition to support the elimination of unwanted chemicals from your system.
When healthy, your body’s own systems can prevent disease, self-regulate, and restore themselves. Functional medicine relies on the belief that the body has incredible capacities for healing. If you are suffering from a heavy toxic burden, our team will partner with you to build a strategy to restore healthy functioning in your body, so you can enjoy lifelong health.
Dr. Lundquist is Board Certified in Family Medicine with ABFM and he is sub-specialized with the American Board of Integrative Medicine (ABoIM). He has also has received a certification from the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine (ABIHM).
Dr. Lundquist has a special interest in Integrative and Holistic medicine. He is currently the founder and medical director for the Temecula Center for Integrative Medicine specializing in all aspects of Functional Medicine. He is a member of the American Holistic Medical Association as well as the Institute of Functional Medicine. He specializes in endocrine disorders especially thyroid and adrenal dysfunction, chronic fatigue, migraine headaches, cardio metabolic disorders, and chronic pain.