A toxin is a chemical or substance known to have a negative or harmful effect on the body. In our everyday lives, we’re exposed to a multitude of different toxins – from the air we breathe, to the products we use on our skin or come into contact with, and the food and water we consume.
Luckily, our bodies have a robust internal detoxification system designed to remove anything potentially harmful. Our liver converts toxins into water-soluble waste products that can be eliminated from the body when we go to the toilet, when we sweat, or through respiration.
Where the problem comes in is when our exposure to toxins exceeds the rate at which our natural detoxification systems can eliminate them – leading to an accumulation of toxins which can have some serious knock-on health implications.
Overexposure to toxins has been linked to the development of a number of chronic health conditions including cancer, auto-immune disease, neurocognitive conditions, and metabolic conditions like diabetes and obesity1.
While we all come into contact with toxins within our daily lives, some people can be at higher risk than others based on their occupation (for example, coal miners, and workers in chemical plants), hobbies, and lifestyle habits. In some cases, your genetic makeup and unique physiology can also result in a decreased ability to detoxify chemicals in the body, also leading to higher risk of disease and health complications2.
Most common environmental toxins
While there are a vast number of environmental toxins, here are some of the most common ones and their implications for our health:
Pesticides and herbicides
The chemicals and substances used to control pests and weeds in agriculture can be harmful to humans. They have been linked with a long list of diseases including cancer, respiratory illness, as well as neurological, reproductive and endocrine conditions.
While our bodies need some metals in very small doses for optimal function, heavy metal toxicity is linked to a large number of serious health conditions. Examples of dangerous heavy metals include lead, mercury, aluminum, and arsenic. Overexposure to the different heavy metal toxins is associated with different conditions ranging from muscular weakness and kidney damage, to impaired brain and nervous system function3.
BPA (Bisephenol A)
Buying BPA-free plastics has gained mainstream media attention in recent years – especially for parents of babies and young children. BPA is a chemical commonly used in the manufacturing of polycarbonate plastics, and can be transferred to food or drinks encased in these types of plastics. Exposure to BPA has been shown to have certain negative effects on the endocrine system and is associated with endocrine disorders including breast and prostate cancer and infertility4.
Parabens are commonly found in cosmetics and personal care products. It’s a type of preservative, and can be absorbed through the skin. Research has linked parabens to a potential estrogenic effect, and they are believed to potentially have a link to increased risk of breast cancer5.
These are commonly used in the plastics manufacturing process and are found in food packaging, cleaning materials, personal care products (such as lotions and cosmetics), paint and more. While phthalates are considered to be easily metabolised and eliminated by the body, over-exposure is associated with endocrine disruption – potentially contributing to thyroid, reproductive and immune conditions5.
How can you reduce your exposure?
When it comes to toxin exposure, prevention is the most important measure. There are some simple lifestyle changes that you can use to reduce your risk. Here are a few:
- Buy fresh, organic produce to limit exposure to pesticides, herbicides and preservatives
- Switch to glass or stainless steel reusable drinking bottles (rather than plastic)
- Check the labels of personal care and household products and choose those that are paraben- and phthalate-free
- Use a water filter at home
- Don’t smoke (this one goes without saying) and limit exposure to secondary cigarette smoke
Get holistic health support
As our everyday lives continue to increase our exposure to toxins, understanding their effects and the way they can accumulate over time plays an important role in unpacking the contributing factors to a number of diseases and conditions.
As a functional medicine practice, we take environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors into account when diagnosing and treating patients. We will work with you to understand all the underlying contributing causes, and design a tailored treatment programme to set you on the right path for recovery and optimal health.
- Sears, M. E., & Genuis, S. J. (2012). Environmental determinants of chronic disease and medical approaches: Recognition, avoidance, supportive therapy, and detoxification. Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012, 1-15. Online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3270432/
- Environmental Toxins and Your Health. Cleveland Clinic. 2014. Online: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/transcripts/1622_environmental-toxins-and-your-health
- Jaishankar, M., Tseten, T., Anbalagan, N., Mathew, B. B., & Beeregowda, K. N. (2014). Toxicity, mechanism and health effects of some heavy metals. Interdisciplinary Toxicology, 7(2), 60-72. Online:
- How does bisphenol A affect health? Medical News Today. 2017. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/221205
- Crinnion, W.J. (2010). Toxic effects of the easily avoidable phthalates and parabens. Alternative Medicine Review. Online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21155623