Industrialized society has exposed us to thousands of toxins. Some are known to be harmful, while the effects of others are unknown. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself. Read on to learn how to decrease your exposure to toxins and increase your detoxification capacity.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article about the hundreds of environmental toxins found in our bodies—in our blood and urine and in the umbilical cords of newborns. I covered how low doses of toxins can be harmful over time, how sometimes low doses can act differently in the body than high doses, and how we all have varying responses to toxins depending on genetics, gut health, detox capacity, and more.
In the near future, hopefully we will be able to run a battery of tests that quickly determine individual susceptibility to mercury and other toxins. Based on those results, we could make customized diet and lifestyle recommendations. But in the meantime, we can all take four key steps to protect ourselves. This article will provide resources to guide you through decreasing your exposure to toxins and increasing your detoxification capacity.
4 steps to help protect yourself from environmental toxins
Step 1: Reduce exposure to toxins
You have a lot of control over what you are exposed to in the home, from cleaning products and personal care products to food storage. If you are using popular conventional products, the idea of changing them all according to recommendations below can be very overwhelming at first. I recommend starting with either what you believe will make the biggest difference or with what is the easiest change to make and then taking small steps from there.
Cosmetic and personal care products
What is applied to the skin may be more important than what we ingest. The gut is pretty good at blocking toxin absorption when it’s working properly. Through the skin, however, toxins can readily reach the bloodstream. Many common products we use daily are linked to allergies, endocrine disruption, and cancer, yet they continue to be sold and used by millions. Being cautious and particular about what products we buy and use is especially important for children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.
The Environmental Working Group provides a fantastic resource called Skin Deep, which critically evaluates specific products and brands and rates them on a safety concern scale from 1–10. Below are some examples of harmful ingredients that should be avoided:
- Triclocarban and triclosan in soaps and toothpaste
- Aluminum in deodorants/antiperspirants—I recommend Native Deodorant. It’s aluminium-free and contains only natural ingredients. This is what my wife and I both use now, and we love it.
- Phthalates, parabens, and retinoids in moisturizers
- Boric acid and BHA in diaper cream
- PEGs, heavy metals, formaldehyde, and siloxanes in makeup/cosmetics
- Formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) in nail polish
- Oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate in chemical-based sunscreens
If you are adventurous, Wellness Mama provides some great recipes for homemade foaming hand soap, body wash, deodorant, lotion, and even makeup. Essential oils are often suggested for homemade products, but they can be powerful and should be used with high discretion.
Home cleaning products
We think cleaning our homes contributes to good health, but many conventional home cleaning products contain carcinogens, irritate the respiratory system, and contribute to allergies. This large category includes air fresheners, bathroom cleaners, laundry products, dish soap, dishwasher detergent, floor care, furniture cleaner, and all-purpose cleaning products.
According to an EWG assessment of more than 2,000 products, half didn’t adequately disclose ingredients, 75 percent contained ingredients that have worrisome respiratory health effects, and 25 percent scored moderate to high concern because ingredients or impurities in the products were linked to cancer. The EWG published a free guide to healthy cleaning products, using a rating system of A through F.
Another option to consider is making your own home products. Most are easy to make and can often end up being cheaper than store-bought options. Mark Sisson provides a great guide to homemade natural cleaners, and Wellness Mama has several helpful posts on how to make your own or purchase safe products.
Toxins in food
Toxins are in our food, too—whether purposely added or contaminated through processing and packaging. The biggest offenders are discussed below.
Pesticides. For avoiding pesticides and herbicides, organic, locally grown produce is the safest bet. The EWG publishes lists for the vegetables and fruits that have the highest pesticide levels, called the “Dirty Dozen,” and for those with the lowest levels, called the “Clean Fifteen.”
Heavy metals. While I believe concerns about mercury in fish are mostly misguided, I do recommend avoiding varieties such as shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel because they can contain far more mercury than selenium. Arsenic in rice (and products made with rice flour) is also a concern. I advise that adults limit rice intake to a few servings a week and that pregnant women and children under the age of two avoid rice altogether.
Food additives. The EWG published a guide on the Dirty Dozen food additives and how to avoid them. The number one best way to stay clear of food additives is to avoid processed food completely.
BPA and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals
You would almost have to be living under a rock to not be aware of the dangers of bisphenol A, or BPA. I have written about the toxic effects of BPA here, here, and here. But BPA isn’t the only endocrine disruptor lurking in everyday plastics. The EWG provides a list of the twelve worst endocrine disruptors. Even BPA-free plastics can contain other bisphenols that may be just as hazardous (1).
Below are ten tips for avoiding BPA and other endocrine disruptors:
- Use stainless steel, glass, or aluminum for water bottles and food storage
- Use parchment paper, beeswax, or recycled aluminum foil instead of plastic wrap
- Avoid canned food products, as they are often lined with BPA or its relatives
- Brew coffee in a glass French press instead of a percolator
- Eat at home with fresh food ingredients, as studies show that people who do have lower levels of BPA (2)
- Keep plastic out of the dishwasher, freezer, and microwaves, because hot and cold temperatures can release more phthalates
- Do not drink canned soda or seltzer, because aluminum cans are often lined with BPA
- Skip the receipt, which often contains BPA
- Choose wood or cloth toys over plastic toys for kids
- Talk to your dentist about sealants and composites, which often contain BPA
The United States does have one of the safest drinking water systems in the world, but contamination still does occur. The EWG has identified 316 contaminants in the public water supply, 202 of which are unregulated. Infants, young people, pregnant women, the elderly, and people whose immune systems are compromised are disproportionately affected by contaminated water. Some of the toxins of concern include:
- Pathogens (bacteria, parasites, viruses)
- Heavy metals (copper and lead)
- Nitrate (from chemical fertilizers and smoke)
- Radon (radioactive gas)
Ensuring access to clean water is one of the most important steps you can take to reduce your toxin exposure. Both the EWG and NSF have guides for choosing a water filter. Water filter types vary, from containers that sit on the counter to tanks under the sink to whole-house filtration systems.
A major source of indoor air pollution stems from water damage. The Federal Facilities Council estimated that 43 percent of current homes have water damage, while up to 85 percent have had past water damage (3). Once water damage occurs, mold can grow in 24 to 48 hours. Bacteria, actinomycetes, endotoxins, and microbial volatile organic compounds are also of concern.
Air filters and air purifiers/sanitizers are two ways to improve the quality of indoor air. I shared some of my recommendations on choosing these systems in a previous post. A HEPA or charcoal filter will remove ultrafine particles like , dust, and viruses from the air, while an air sanitizer will remove allergens, odors, and germs, as well as mold.
Step 2: Eat a nutrient-dense diet
The rise of processed, refined food paired with unprecedented toxin exposure is taking a toll on our bodies. In the first article of my series “9 Steps to Perfect Health,” I discussed the dangers of four toxins humans are now ingesting as food, sometimes as the bulk of their diets. These four “foods” can disrupt the gut, disturb endocrine function, increase inflammation, and ultimately lead to a laundry list of chronic diseases:
- Cereal grains (especially refined flours)
- Omega-6 industrial seed oils (corn, cottonseed, safflower, soybean, etc.)
- Refined sugar (especially high-fructose corn syrup)
- Processed soy (soy milk, soy protein, soy flour, etc.)
In contrast, a Paleo diet will naturally support detoxification and health. Instead of focusing on macronutrients, put the focus on real, nutrient-dense whole foods. A Paleo diet is anti-inflammatory, reduces stress on the body, and provides important micronutrients that are required for detoxification, including but not limited to:
- B vitamins – B6, B12, folate, niacin, riboflavin, biotin (dark leafy greens, fish)
- Zinc (seafood, beef)
- Magnesium (dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds)
- Choline (liver, eggs)
- Glycine (bone broth, cartilage)
- Plant polyphenols (fruits and vegetables)
Step 3: Improve your gut health
As I mentioned earlier, the gut is terrific at removing ingested toxins (4, 5, 6), but only if it is working properly. Antibiotics, birth control, diets high in refined carbohydrates and industrial seed oils, chronic stress, and chronic infections all directly contribute to unhealthy gut flora. I have written extensively about the gut’s connection to the skin, heart, thyroid, brain, and more. Healing and maintaining your gut microbiome is vital to overall health. Including the following in your diet will help promote gut health:
- Probiotics or fermented foods. Sauerkraut, beet kvass, and kimchi are a few examples. Probiotic supplements are also available, but they will not have the same diversity as eating a variety of naturally fermented foods will.
- Prebiotics are even better than probiotics at promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria (7). Fruits and vegetables high in soluble fiber like sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and avocados are prebiotic. Prebiogen is my preferred prebiotic supplement.
- Resistant starch. Cooked and cooled potatoes, if you tolerate them, provide resistant starch. More concentrated doses can be obtained from potato starch.
Avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary will keep your gut microbiome robust, but if you must treat with antibiotics, read my guide on how to mitigate the damage.
Step 4: Improve your detox capacity
Detoxification happens mostly in the liver, through three phases (8, 9). Phase 1 begins to process the toxin, often creating free radicals and other more harmful substances. In Phase 2, products are further broken down into water-soluble compounds. Phase 3 moves remaining products out of the cells to be excreted.
The three detox phases involve a complicated network of biochemical reactions, which are assisted by dozens of cofactors, enzymes, and more. Although an intricate process, there are several ways to improve and support your detoxification capacity.
Methylation is one of the conjugation reactions in Phase 2. Methylation requires B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, choline, glycine, betaine, and methionine to function properly, along with methylation adaptogens found in certain fruits and vegetables. As I mentioned in a previous section, those on a Paleo diet who eat a wide variety of foods are probably getting adequate levels of these nutrients, but not always. If you have heavy metal toxicity or chronic infections, impaired methylation might be an underlying cause. To test for methylation status, the Methylation Pathways Panel from Health Diagnostics and Research Institute or the Methylation Panel from Doctor’s Data are both viable options to get an idea of where methylation might need support.
You might have heard of methylation in the context of MTHFR gene mutations. The MTHFR gene codes for an enzyme that adds a methyl group to folic acid, converting it to the more usable form, folate. A current trend is for people to identify their MTHFR gene mutations through a DNA kit from 23andme and then supplement based on the results. Although a surprisingly high percentage of people do have a MTHFR gene mutation, supplementation based on this alone isn’t the way to go. Some with mutations will have very good methylation status, while others might not. Furthermore, MTHFR isn’t the only enzyme involved in methylation. Therefore, I highly recommend working with a functional medicine practitioner to get the whole picture through methylation panels and more before supplementing. Many health problems are associated with overmethylation, including cancer, autoimmune disease, and allergies (10, 11, 12).
Methylation is also required to produce glutathione, which is a major molecule in the detoxification cycle and an important antioxidant (13). Many nutrient-dense foods provide glutathione precursors, but in particular, whey from raw dairy or whey protein is a good source. Those with autoimmune diseases likely have glutathione deficiency. One way to test for this would be a urine organic acids panel from Genova or Metametrix, which identifies the levels of byproducts of reactions involved in glutathione regulation.
- DIM, or diindolylmethane, which promotes healthy estrogen metabolism and cell cycle activity
- Calcium D-glucarate, which promotes healthy hormone detox
- Milk thistle extract, which supports phase 2 detox and helps metabolize estrogen (14)
- Alpha-lipoic acid and N-acetylcysteine, which support phase 2 detox
- Taurine, glycine, and methionine, which are amino acids that support phase 2 detox and healthy cell metabolism
Toxins that the liver and kidneys cannot properly detox can sometimes be expelled through sweating. This is a bit of a controversial topic, but there is evidence of heavy metals, BPA, and flame retardants found in sweat (15, 16, 17). Work up a sweat during regular exercise, or frequent a sauna. Mark Sisson has laid out the many benefits of saunas beyond boosting detox.
Proper hydration is especially important for exercise or sauna use, but it is vital for everyone, since we release toxins through urine. I don’t like to provide a specific number of ounces of water per day. Don’t force water, but listen to your body and look for markers of dehydration, like dark-colored or infrequent urination.
Stress management is a core aspect of a Paleo lifestyle and is something I have written about many times. Chronic stress raises cortisol levels with dire health consequences, including a weakened immune system, hormonal imbalances, mood disorders, and decreased detox capacity.
In our ever-increasingly busy world, it’s still important to find time to wind down and relax, even if it means cutting back and saying “no” sometimes. Incorporating regular stress management practices like meditation, yoga, tai chi, or progressive relaxation can provide many benefits.
Get enough sleep
Almost one-third of Americans are getting six or fewer hours of sleep per night (18). Sleep deprivation increases inflammation (19) and impairs the immune system, which negatively impacts the body’s ability to detox. Research indicates that during sleep, neurotoxic waste products are eliminated from the brain, pointing to a direct role for sleep in detoxification (20). Our circadian rhythms also can help regulate liver detoxification (21).
Here are some of my best tips for getting enough sleep:
- Avoid artificial light from screens at least an hour before bed
- Minimize all artificial light exposure in the late evening hours
- Sleep in a dark, relatively cool room (68–70F)
- Take a hot bath before bed
- Keep electronics out of the bedroom
I hope these four steps will help jump start your journey toward minimizing your exposure to toxins and maximizing your detox capacity. Now I want to hear from you. Which step will be most challenging for you? What changes have you already made? Let us know in the comments!