Toxins, toxicants and detoxing
Once upon a time, in a previous life, I studied a masters degree in toxicology. I feel like it’s time to approach the confusing topic of toxins, toxicants and detoxing.
There is a huge amount of information out there about these things, and how they are making you miserable and sick. Many of these sources of information then go on to advise you on how to ‘cleanse’ while spending lots of time, money and energy on your new perceived problem. They usually make you feel rubbish with no actual improvement!
It’s best to start from knowing the terms that are in play:
Toxins: A toxin is any poisonous substance produced by bacteria, animals, or plants (1). These occur naturally, and include things like tetrodotoxin from puffer fish, snake venom, bacterial exo/endotoxins and poisonous substances in plants and mushrooms. Some are very toxic and some are tolerable to the body in small doses.
Toxicant: a toxic substance; poison (2)
A more specific scientific definition of ‘toxicant’ is:
A poison that is made by humans or that is put into the environment by human activities (3). This includes pesticides, herbicides, petrochemical products, genetically modified organisms, heavy metals, bisphenols, radioactive compounds, many medications, artificial food additives, phthalates and millions of other man-made chemicals.
Detoxification: the process of removing harmful chemicals from something (4). This is something that your body is very good at with most toxicants most of the time.
Detoxification can also be a treatment that is intended to remove toxic substances from the body. (5)
If we think back to times before we started making millions of different synthetic chemicals, our bodies were only usually exposed to toxins. While some of those were fatal, we had the advantage of big brains and language to learn and communicate risks and reduce the risk. Some of them are found in foods, and we evolved systems to recognise, neutralise and excrete these.
According to the NRDC, there are more than 80,000 man-made chemicals in use in the USA (6). Then there are the breakdown products of these, increasing those numbers significantly.
Without wishing to cause alarm, most of these have not been tested in isolation for their impact on human health, let alone as part of the cocktail of chemicals that we are exposed to. That would be impossible to test!
Let’s back one step.
‘Chemicals’ are everywhere – everything that is a thing is made of chemicals. It isn’t a dirty word.
‘Natural’ vs ‘man-made’ isn’t as easy as ‘good vs bad’. There are plenty of ‘safe’ man-made chemicals and very toxic natural ones.
The poison is in the dose. Too much oxygen can kill you, as can too much water. Every chemical out there probably has a safe dose (though some are extremely low). In toxicology, we use a term ‘no observable adverse effect level’, or NOAEL. This level is different for every chemical and can change if there are certain combinations of chemicals present. It’s complicated. Our bodies are complicated.
Some people are more sensitive to certain things than others. An individual may be more sensitive at certain points in their life or with certain underlying health conditions. Babies, children, older people, pregnant ladies and unborn babies are generally more sensitive to toxins and toxicants.
We evolved the most amazing systems to protect our bodies from many of the toxins that we have been exposed to for millions of years. While our liver does most of the work, the kidneys, skin, lungs and large intestine are all very important.
Nausea and vomiting of pregnancy (morning sickness) may have evolved to protect the early embryo from toxins that the mother might ingest – spoiled food, toxins that wouldn’t affect her in other stages of life, higher risk foods.
In a very short space of time, humanity has created thousands and thousands of new chemicals and released others from the earth that were previously buried or only at the surface in a few places.
This leaves our ancient planet and bodies with a modern problem to solve – toxicants
How do we effectively dispose of this stuff from our bodies?!
I’ll cover that in Part 2!
- Toxin. Collins English Dictionary.
- Toxicant. Collins English Dictionary.
- NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms [Internet]. National Cancer Institute. [cited 2018 Nov 7]. Available from: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms?cdrid=687391
- Detoxification. Cambridge Dictionary.
- Detoxification. Collins English Dictionary.
- NRDC. Toxic chemicals [Internet]. [cited 2018 Nov 7]. Available from: https://www.nrdc.org/issues/toxic-chemicals