How Well Do We Detoxify?
In a backlash against the ‘detox’ industry, doctors have made claims in popular media articles that the body is perfectly capable of detoxifying on its own. However, researchers and medical experts in the field of Environmental Health would disagree and there is a growing body of research to challenge that assumption.
‘One thing we do know is that the longer a toxicant stays in the body, the more potential it has to do harm.’
There are two main reasons toxics linger in the body:
1. Compromised detoxification due to chronic disease and lifestyle.
2. Chemicals that are biologically and environmentally persistent.
Chemicals That Are Persistent
In the post-war industrial boom, several classes of chemicals came into widespread use that turned out to have unintended staying power. That means they break down very slowly and have a tendency to accumulate in biological systems.
We refer to these toxicants as Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs. The most talked about and researched POPs are:
· Organochlorine pesticides (e.g. DDT, DDE)
· Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
· Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE)
· Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFOA, PFOS)
Despite a global initiative to ban some POPs in 1991, they are still widespread in the environment and will linger for decades to come due to their persistent nature.
The organochlorine pesticide DDE was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Yet a 2017 study conducted by the USDA, revealed that 39% of kale greens sampled from across the United States contained DDE. POPs are in the water, the air, the soil, wildlife, livestock and most humans living on planet earth.
Persistent Chemicals in the Human Body
POPs are lipophilic in nature which means they are fat soluble, making them harder to break down safely in the body. They tend to get sequestered and stored in our fatty tissue for many years.
PBDEs and PFOAs are most commonly found in the dust and air of our homes. They have been used extensively in treatments for furniture, cabinetry, flooring, carpeting, and apparel to provide flame-retardant, non-stick and stain-repellant properties. Once absorbed this class of POPs remains in the human body for 3-5 years.
The organochlorine pesticide DDT is even more persistent with a half-life of 8 years. What that means is a person who absorbed 1 gram of DDT in 1972, would still retain 0.06 grams of it by 2004. Some persistent organic pollutants are released from adipose tissue during weight loss, caloric restriction, exercise, or breast feeding.
All Persistent Organic Pollutants are:
Carcinogenic and associated with an increased risk of cancer, especially breast cancer.
Disruptive to reproductive and metabolic hormones.
Toxic to immune cells, the brain, liver and kidneys.
Individual Detox Capacity
The fate of a chemical once inside the human body is highly dependent on the health status of each person. Certain chemicals may be poorly metabolized and excreted, and may remain in the body for a prolonged period of time.
1. Compromised Organ Health
Disease which affects the main organs of detoxification – the gastrointestinal tract, liver, and kidneys can compromise their capacity to detoxify. For example, 1 in 4 Canadians have been diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease which causes inflammation and damage in the liver. Diseases which affect key organs of detoxification are more prevalent than we think.
2. What We Ingest
Foods, supplements and medications can also alter the metabolism of toxins, changing the course of their journey through the body.
Drugs + The Microbiome: Due to the fact that enzymes produced by gut bacteria alter the chemical structure of toxicants, our gut microbiome plays an important role in detoxification. Gut flora can directly impact the level of toxicity and lifetime of a chemical in the body.
Foods and medications which shape the gut microbiome, can also influence a person’s detoxification competence. Drugs like antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), and birth control pills can suppress normal functioning of the intestinal flora.
Supplements: Sometimes daily supplements come with unintended side effects. For example, Vitamin D has been shown to potentiate the absorption of heavy metals like lead, aluminum, and cadmium.
3. Many Moving Parts
Detoxification has many steps and involves several organs and systems. While a compound may be effectively conjugated in the liver and made ready for transport through the bile fluids, these compounds can be poorly absorbed in the intestine and end up back in circulation. This reabsorption and recycling process can and does happen in both the kidneys and the liver.
Toxicants can be sequestered into fat tissue, reabsorbed and recycled, or remain bound to proteins in the blood. When harmful compounds accumulate faster than they are excreted, the body attempts to protect itself by depositing toxins in tissues, bones and organs where they can cause localized injury and sensitization.
4. Individual Lifestyle
Our lifestyle plays an important role in how well our organs of detoxification function. Each person has a different level of health and a different pattern of exposure to foreign chemicals. Obviously someone who smokes cigarettes on a daily basis or works in an industry where they have chronic chemical exposures, are going to be more vulnerable to detox malfunction.
Environmental Health researchers use the term Body Burden to represent the spectrum of chemicals that linger inside the human body. Studies done in 2004 and 2009 show that a typical baby born in in North America has over 200 distinct chemicals in their blood at birth. In the U.S. the average woman uses up to 12 personal care products a day, exposing her to 168 different chemicals. This is just her lotion, shampoo and cosmetics, it does not account for what she is exposed to in the air, the water, the food or household products.
How well our body detoxifies on its own is still up for question because the science exploring human health and the environment is too often ignored or otherwise silenced by industry.