First the bad news: The evidence is now overwhelming that pollution contributes to chronic disease. Almost every system in the body can be disrupted by levels of exposure to toxins commonly found in the majority of Americans. (14) Many toxins target multiple systems and can set off cascades of inflammation that can topple a person's health like a perfect throw straight down the lane at Lucky Strike. And guess what: Your government is NOT protecting you enough from exposures that harm.
Now the good news: There is a corresponding body of evidence that shows a proper detox program -- one that reduces the input of toxins and helps the body more efficiently eliminate toxins with a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory lifestyle -- can significantly reduce the negative impact of environmental stressors. What follows are a few of the highlights from recent research that make detoxing your life as essential as getting a good night's sleep and going to the gym.
Reducing toxin levels in the body can happen quickly: Research shows switching from a conventional to an organic, pesticide-free diet results in "dramatic and immediate" reduction in pesticide levels in the body. In one study of young children, just five days after beginning an organic, nutrient-dense diet, levels of circulating pesticides dropped from relatively high to undetectable (1). Do your body a favor: Stop flooding it with chemicals!
Helps you lose weight: Eliminating toxins from your body can make it easier to shed pounds. (13) The presence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (for example, BPA present in many consumer items from canned food to cash register receipts) has been linked to increased risk of obesity. (14) Some chemicals -- including a widespread pollutant present in smoke from burning wood, charcoal and in charred meats -- disrupt the ability of the body to digest and eliminate fats (2). Numerous common toxins -- including heavy metals, solvents, pesticides, and Phthalate -- have all been shown in studies to cause lab animals to gain weight like Christian Bale preparing for American Hustle (3). You can't eliminate all toxins from your life, but you can dramatically reduce your exposure and make your body better at getting rid of toxins -- as a result, your body will become better at losing weight.
Lowers risk of diabetes: Pollution is increasingly recognized as a major factor in the diabetes epidemic. Studies have shown the risk of diabetes is increased by exposure to air pollution (4) and environmentally ubiquitous chemicals such as dioxins -- a by-product of chlorine and paper manufacturing commonly present in animal products (5). Scientists have even established a strong link between pesticides and the diabetes precursor, insulin resistance. When people are exposed to several of these toxins at once it makes sense that there is an additive increased risk of diabetes. (15)
Makes your body more efficient at creating energy: Toxins can have a negative impact on multiple levels of the energy production cycle in our bodies. They can disrupt nearly every part of our cellular energy factories' -- the mitochondria's -- ability to generate energy. (16) Pollutants can punch holes in the mitochondria's membrane allowing in more toxic substances. (17) Mitochondrial DNA is relatively naked -- much less protected than nuclear DNA -- and are much more easily damaged by these toxins. Moreover, toxins can directly interfere with the Krebs cycle, the critical cellular process that converts sugar into energy. (18) All of this can easily lead to a chronically-depleted state of fatigue.
Reduces competition for detox pathways: The job of exposing (Phase I) and eliminating (Phase II) chemicals and toxins (including alcohol, cigarette smoke, caffeine, prescription drugs and every synthetic chemical that enters the body) happens mainly in the liver, and to a lesser extent, in many other organs. When the body has a high burden of toxins, the body's clean-up mechanisms get jammed up like an off-ramp at rush hour -- this is what we call "competition for detox pathways" (6). As a result, toxins get stored throughout the body, especially in fat, rather than being eliminated. When you reduce the overall daily toxic load, the detox traffic jam is eased and your "cellular off-ramps" can eliminate traffic more efficiently (7).
Reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease: The heart literally prefers to be pure; it is sensitive to toxins. Arsenic, lead, cadmium, pollutant gases, solvents and pesticides have all been linked to increased incidence of heart disease. (19) Inflammation of the blood vessels and increased free radicals (the by-products of inflammation) have been fingered as prime suspects in the heart-disease-toxin connection. (20) Exposure to increased levels of carbon monoxide (vehicle exhaust), ozone, lead and air pollution on high air-pollution-alert-days are associated with increased hospitalization and death due to cardiovascular disease (8). Multiple studies show that air pollutants (especially those associated with burning coal and charred meats) significantly increase the risk of blood clots throughout the body by increasing the production of clotting proteins and the activity of blood clotting platelet cells. (21) Reducing exposure to all categories of toxins and helping the body eliminate stored toxins by following a well-designed detox program is a simple way to be kinder to your heart.
Helps repair the chronically overloaded digestive tract: By flooding the gut with beneficial nutrients and removing toxins, a proper detox program allows intestinal cells constantly exposed to toxins in foods (including pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals, and preservatives) to begin the process of self-healing. The body can then allot much more energy to processing beneficial nutrients. Having a cleaner diet gives the gut a chance to begin repairing the breaks in the barrier in-between cells, which too often allow leaking of substances that should never escape the gut (9). Reducing toxins has also been shown to help re-establish better flora and fauna balance in the gut (10), which aids repair, immunity, digestion, and nutritive balance.
Helps you breathe better: Unlike China, where the air pollution hangs as thick in the air as San Francisco fog, in the United States we've managed to mostly reduce our air pollution to "fine particulate matter" -- easier on the lungs, but still damaging. Asthma and other respiratory diseases (including infections) flare with increasing levels of fine particulate matter -- including from car exhaust, ozone and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like outgassing from freshly painted walls and chemical cleaning products (5). Scientists have recently identified even more serious carcinogens in common pollutants like car exhaust than had been previously thought (11), and a recent study by researchers at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York demonstrated that having more than one type of toxic exposure -- air pollution and stress together -- multiplied the risk of an asthma attack (12). Any toxic exposure that can be eliminated will help people with asthma and other respiratory conditions avoid flare-ups.
Note: Stay-tuned for "Reasons To Detox, Part II." For more information on how to detox, read Dr. Merrell's book, The Detox Prescription.
1) Lu C, Toepel K, Irish R, Fenske RA, Barr DB, et al. "Organic diets significantly lower children's dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides." Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Feb;114(2):260-3.
2) Jones OA, Maguire ML, Griffin JL."Environmental pollution and diabetes: a neglected association." Lancet. 2008 Jan 26;371(9609):287-8. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(08)60147-6.
3) Heindel JJ. "Endocrine disruptors and the obesity epidemic." Toxicol Sci. 2003 Dec;76(2):247-9..
4) Pearson JF, Bachireddy C, et al. "Association between fine particulate matter and diabetes prevalence in the U.S." Diabetes Care. 2010 Oct;33(10):2196-201. doi: 10.2337/dc10-0698.
5) "New York State's Children and the Environment," A report from the Children's Environmental Health Center, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. December, 2013; 20-22, 43-45.
6) Saenz Robles MT, Case A, et al. "The retinoblastoma tumor suppressor regulates a xenobiotic detoxification pathway." PLoS One. 2011;6(10):e26019. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026019.
7) Rouimi P, Zucchini-Pascal N, et al. "Impacts of low doses of pesticide mixtures on liver cell defense systems." Toxicol in Vitro. 2012 Aug;26(5):718-26. doi: 10.1016/j.tiv.2012.03.015.
8) Brook RD, Franklin B, et al. "Air pollution and cardiovascular disease: a statement for healthcare professionals from the Expert Panel on Population and Prevention Science of the American Heart Association." Circulation. 2004 Jun 1;109(21):2655-71.
9) Choi UH, Seelbach MJ, Pu H, et al. "Polychlorinated biphenyls disrupt intestinal integrity via NADPH oxidase-induced alterations of tight junction protein expression." Environ Health Perspect. 2010 Jul;118(7):976-81. doi: 10.1289/ehp.0901751.
10) Kish L, Hotte N, et al. "Environmental particulate matter induces murine intestinal inflammatory responses and alters the gut microbiome." PLoS One. 2013 Apr 24;8(4):e62220. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062220.
11) "Newly Discovered Compounds Hundreds of Times More Toxic than Known Carcinogens," by David Stauth. January 6, 2014. Ecowatch.com.
12) Chiu YH, Coull BA...Wright RJ. "Effects of prenatal community violence and ambient air pollution on childhood wheeze in an urban population." J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2013 Nov 4. pii: S0091-6749(13)01469-3. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2013.09.023.