Can We Protect Ourselves from a Toxic Environment?

Polluted food, water pollution, air pollution, noise pollution, electromagnetic pollution — it appears that toxins are everywhere in our environment. These days, one also hears about toxic people and relationships.

The Essentials: Food, Water, and Air

Food is a major area of concern with regard to toxicities. In addition to residues from pesticides and chemical fertilizers used in modern agriculture, prepared foods often contain added sugars, hydrogenated fats, and questionable additives. Even organically grown fruit and vegetables contain their own naturally occurring mildly toxic compounds that have evolved to protect these plants from predators. Researcher Bruce N. Ames, Ph.D., once remarked that pesticide residues present in non-organically grown produce are far less toxic than these ubiquitous plant “pesticides.”

The water that comes out of your tap may also be contaminated. Insufficiently purified water may contain toxic residues and disease-carrying microorganisms. Even seemingly pristine wilderness springs can be contaminated. Pipes can add lead or copper to the water they carry. Lead has no place in the human body and copper, while an essential mineral, can build up in the body to toxic levels. Compounds in some plastic containers can also leach into otherwise pure water.

There’s no doubt that the air we breathe is altered by a number of factors. Automobile exhaust and power plant emissions contain carbon dioxide (CO2) that can reach higher than normal levels in the atmosphere. In addition to CO2, auto exhaust releases hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other compounds. Sulfur dioxide is also released by industrial sources and has a natural source in volcanic eruptions. Volcanoes, forest fires, dust storms, and hurricanes can increase fine particle air pollution, which is associated with cardiovascular disease and asthma.

Other Environmental Concerns

Exposure to loud noise, such as that emitted by machinery or gunfire, or by listening to loud music through headphones, can result in hearing loss that can in many cases be permanent. Chronic exposure to traffic noise has been associated with immune dysfunction and type 2 diabetes.1,2

Low frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs), a type of radiation that emanates from power lines, have been linked with childhood acute leukemia.3 Higher-frequency radiation such as that which comes from X-rays is far more damaging. This type of radiation is also present in the ultraviolet light that comes from the sun.

Cigarette smoke, flame retardants, household cleaning supplies, prescription and nonprescription drugs, mercury-containing dental fillings, ozone, BPA . . . the list goes on and on. And what about toxic family members, coworkers or political leaders, or so-called toxic thoughts?

While there a few things people can do to reduce environmental toxins, much is beyond our control. One can, however, make changes to the body’s microenvironment to minimize the effects of pollution.

What Can We Do To Protect Ourselves?

Not to be confused with residential drug or alcohol detoxification center programs, “detoxes” or “cleanses” involve short periods during which modified fasting is employed. Cleanses often involve the consumption of fresh-squeezed (preferably organic) juices along with nutritional supplementation to help make up for any deficiencies associated with this regimen. While short term cleanses may give the body a break from the constant onslaught of toxins ingested with modern diets, it is questionable how much of the body’s toxic burden will be reduced. Lipid-soluble compounds can lodge in the body’s fat stores for many years.

More intensive detoxing can involve vigorous exercise and supplementation with niacin to improve blood circulation, as well as saunas to increase the elimination of toxins through the skin via perspiration. The addition of cold-pressed oils may also help. In a study involving mice that were genetically engineered so that they would not make new fatty acids in the liver, the addition of fat to the diet helped burn pre-existing fat deposits.4 Senior researcher Clay F. Semenkovich, M.D., from Washington University School of Medicine, suggested that people who want to lose fat stored in peripheral tissues could consume small amounts of fats, such as fish oils, that might activate fat-burning pathways through the liver. Reduction of stored fats could help increase the loss of fat-soluble toxins.

A human trial conducted by researchers at Columbia University in collaboration with several other institutions found an association between B vitamin supplementation and protection against fine particulate matter’s effect on the immune and cardiovascular system. This study showed that a two-hour exposure to concentrated ambient PM2.5 had a substantial impact on heart rate, heart rate variability, and white blood counts. “We demonstrated that these effects are nearly abolished with four-week B-vitamin supplementation", concluded Andrea Baccarelli, M.D., Ph.D., who coauthored the report of the findings.5

B vitamins have been shown to reduce the effects of fine particulate matter on the human epigenome, which helps determine the genes that are active and inactive in a cell. In a study on healthy adults, a two-hour exposure to concentrated ambient PM2.5 affected the epigenetic landscape of circulating CD4+ T helper cells. It was possible to prevent these effects with B-vitamin supplementation (i.e., folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12).”6

Alpha tocopherol (vitamin E) is another vitamin that could help protect the body from the effects of air pollution. In a study involving 5,519 participants, alpha-tocopherol and a vitamin C metabolite known as threonate were among 8 metabolites that were significantly decreased in association with exposure to small particulate matter and low forced expiratory volume, a measure of lung function.7 The strongest association with particles smaller than 2.5 microns and low forced expiratory volume was observed with alpha-tocopherol, which suggests that the mechanism utilized by particulate matter to damage the lungs could be oxidative attack, which vitamin E helps protect against.

A controlled trial conducted in a heavily industrialized region of China found that a beverage that contained freeze-dried broccoli sprout powder experienced a 61% increase in urinary excretion of conjugates of the carcinogen benzene and a 23% increase in the excretion of the lung irritant acrolein increased over a 12-week period. The study revealed a simple and safe means that can be taken by individuals to reduce the levels of some chemicals associated with air pollution.8

For those exposed to noise pollution, the herb rhodiola may help. A study in which rats were exposed to noise levels greater than 95 decibels found adverse liver effects among control animals, while these changes did not occur in the livers of animals treated with rhodiola.9 Rhodiola may also help people handle the effects of mental stressors.

The Bottom Line

From the above data, you have probably gathered that toxins cannot be avoided altogether. Though modern civilization is a significant contributor, many pollutants also have natural sources. Although one can attempt to implement environmental modifications, the best course of action is to strengthen and protect oneself to resist the potential adverse effects of our environment.

References

  1. Kim A et al. PLoS One. 2017 Oct 30;12(10):e0187084.
  2. Sorensen M et al. Environ Health Perspect. 2013;121:217–22.
  3. Sermage-Faure C et al. Br J Cancer. 2013 May 14;108(9):1899-906.
  4. Chakravarthy MV et al. Cell Metab. 2005 May;1(5):309-22.
  5. Zhong J et al. Sci Rep. 2017 Apr 3;7:45322.
  6. Zhong J et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Mar 28;114(13):3503-3508.
  7. Menni C et al. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2015 May 15;191(10):1203-7
  8. Egner PA et al. Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2014 Aug;7(8):813-823.
  9. Zhu BW et al. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2003 Sep;67(9):1930-6.

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