What is toxic load and how does it affect us?
For as much as semanticists will argue that virtually everything is a chemical, including water, therefore it’s impossible to live a chemical-free life, there are realities around toxicity and how it builds up in our bodies.
Toxic load is a term that has been bandied about by naturopaths and holistic practitioners for a long time, but the medical community is still far behind in understanding it or explaining it to patients, despite the fact that it can have grave repercussions on our health.
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“Conventional medicine doesn’t help people understand the role of toxic load in health,” says Dr. Taz Bhatia, an integrative health expert and founder of CentreSpring MD in Atlanta. “Older systems of medicine have talked about it for years and we have more toxins in our bodies today than any other time.”
Toxic load refers to the accumulation of toxins and chemicals in our bodies that we ingest from a variety of sources, including the environment, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the personal care and household products we use.
“Genetics also have an impact and it’s important for patients to understand that. If a person has failed detox pathways, even if they’ve always eaten healthy and exercised, they could be more prone to disease,” Bhatia says.
In a 2016 study conducted by a number of scientific institutions, including Harvard University and the Silent Spring Institute, researchers identified 45 chemicals from five chemical classes in indoor dust found in a range of environments, including schools, homes and gymnasiums across 14 states. These chemicals were derived from consumer products, including household products, beauty products and home materials (i.e. flooring), and were associated with health hazards such as cancer, endocrine and hormone disruption, and reproductive toxicity.
“We think our homes are a safe haven but unfortunately they are being polluted by toxic chemicals from all our products,” Veena Singla, co-author of the study from the Natural Resources Defense Council in California, said to The Guardian.
The study focused particularly on how the indoor environment affects children, especially considering the average amount of time spent indoors, and that children often play on the floor and put their hands in their mouths.
“They end up having a lot more exposure to chemicals in dust, and they are more vulnerable to toxic effects because their brains and bodies are still developing,” Singla said.
But in fact, children are susceptible to toxins even before they’re born. That’s because they will absorb the toxins that are present in their mothers’ bodies.
“Autism is an emerging field and one that we’re still learning about, but we know that a baby spends nine months in the mother’s womb, and in that time, they can accumulate a ton of toxins,” Bhatia says. “They’ve found BPAs in breast milk [bisphenol A, an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics].”
Alarming as that may sound, some researchers have conducted small tests that show the toxic load that could be making its way through breast milk is, in fact, less than what we breathe inside our homes. (Although based on the report above, that’s not much of a comfort.)
“When you have cumulative exposure [from using these products and eating these foods] for 20 or 30 years, then it will matter,” Bhatia says.
The good news is that we do have control over how many toxins we accumulate. For one thing, our bodies have four major organs responsible for clearing out toxins: the skin, kidneys, colon and liver. By optimizing the health of these organs, it can help filter out the toxins effectively.
Supporting these organs include drinking plenty of filtered water, ensuring you have a daily (if not twice daily) bowel movement, and protecting your liver by limiting alcohol intake. Loading up on greens, like dandelion, milk thistle and kale also helps.
The next step, Bhatia says, is to read labels.
“Look for ingredients like BPA, parabens and phthalates, [and avoid them]. Pay attention to what’s in your home — how much pre-fabricated wood do you have, what’s the quality of your carpeting and your paint? A lot of people like that new car smell and the smell of fresh paint, but that’s the smell of chemicals off-gassing. You’re inhaling toxins.”
Don’t feel that you need to detox everything at once, however. Try focusing on two aspects, whether that’s personal care products and your food, or the quality of your drinking water and your household cleaning products. It’s important to be realistic about it.
“We all have to live and be participants in the community.”
Finally, Bhatia says that science needs to catch up. By identifying people who are genetically poor detoxifiers — they have mutations of the NAD2, SOD and MTHFR genes that prevent them from effectively eliminating toxins — they can be put on a program early to give them a better chance of avoiding toxicity diseases.
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Much as it sounds impossible to tackle — after all, how can we clean the air we breathe outside? — Bhatia says having this conversation and making smarter consumer decisions can lead to effective change.
“There’s a political undertone in this conversation,” she says. “Purchasing power and the conscious decision not to buy certain products will change policy about which chemicals are safe for our products.”
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