Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Six Principles of Optimal Health: #2-Avoid Toxins

"There is a growing consensus in the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can have adverse effects on health, especially during vulnerable periods such as fetal development and childhood." 
Andrew Weil

In the first principle of achieving optimal health, I focused primarily on the importance of eating more nutritious foods. After you start to improve the nutrient content of your diet, you then have to start focusing on avoiding as many dietary and environmental toxins as you can. While chronic exposure to individual toxins may not be very destructive to your health, collectively, these toxins can cause chronic stress and/or mess with the proper function of the endocrine system. So even if your diet is 100% on point, chronic exposure to the multitude of environmental toxins typically found in industrialized countries (especially the US) can relentlessly chip away at your health.

Being assaulted by any toxin can cause a stress response as the body detoxifies itself. If you are constantly assaulted by many toxins every day, then you can suffer from chronic stress and endocrine disruption.
  •  Chronic stress brings excess cortisol which can strip muscle, increase body fat (especially abdominal fat), cause insulin resistance, sap energy, and suppress the immune system. 
  • A malfunctioning endocrine system prevents the body from using hormones correctly to manage essential life processes. 
Both chronic stress and endocrine disruption accelerate the development and progression of disease.

Of course, nature is full of dangerous chemicals. I'm not talking about these natural toxins. I'm talking about man-made dietary and environmental toxins that are a consequence industrialization. These toxins were largely an unintended consequence of the Industrial (both first and second) and Green Revolutions. While these revolutions lifted peasants out of poverty and produced an abundance of calories, it also allowed for the creation of dangerous synthetic chemicals, destructive pollutants, and unhealthy pseudo-foods.

Environmental Toxins
I'll start this section off with a little history. In most industrialized nations, unhealthy exposure to environmental toxins really started with the heart of the Industrial Revolution: The steam engine. For the steam engine to work, it needed lots of heat, which came from the combustion of large amounts of low-quality coal. When this coal was burned, it released toxic smoke and soot, which was disposed of by simply funneling it out of smoke stacks. Unfortunately, this smoke and soot eventually came back down to the Earth, literally turning whole cities black. This smoke and soot also had a terrible impact on the health of people who worked and lived around cities that used coal. (1) 

An artist's depiction of early industrial pollution.

While electricity eventually helped to reduce coal use, some places were slow to embrace this change. (1) This was punctuated in 1952 in London when the pollution from commercial and private coal use, combined with automobile exhaust and very calm weather, produced a thick and persistent 5-day cover of yellow and black tinted smog that resulted in an estimated 12,000 deaths (and over 100,000 cases of respiratory infection/aggravation). (2) 

A London police officer tries to protect himself from The Great Smog with a "smog mask."

The Industrial Revolution didn't just pollute the air, it also polluted water. Of course, humans have unknowingly polluted their water sources with raw sewage f
or many centuries. Sometimes this pollution was so bad that it led to many outbreaks of infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera (however, the connection between human waste and infectious disease wasn't realized until 1854). 

But industrial waste water was something else, adding both conventional (e.g., oil and grease) and unconventional (e.g., mercury, lead, and cadmium) pollutants into common waterways. By the 1950s and 60s, waster water pollution had gotten so bad in Ohio that the Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire several times during these two decades. In other places, many species of fish became so polluted with mercury that they were unsafe to eat.   

The degree of pollution in the Cuyahoga River was so bad in some places that it could coat a person's hand in oil and grease. These oils slicks would occasionally catch on fire. 

Finally, the advances of the 20th century gave rise to another deadly form of pollution: Synthetic chemicals (e.g., dyes, insecticides, plastics, and fertilizers). Although many of these chemicals have no known effect on human health, a few of these chemicals were found to mimic the hormone estrogen (e.g., PCB, BPA). Unlike natural estrogen, the body cannot control the action of these estrogen mimickers, causing endocrine disruption. (4)

This picture shows how the man-made pollutant polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) can move up the food chain. As it moves up, it concentrates. This means that phytoplankton will have the least amount of PCBs while the herring gull (or humans) will have the most.

Today, government regulation has reduced or eliminated much of this earlier pollution. And even though air, soil, and water quality has improved, there is still environmental toxins hanging around. Burning fossil fuels releases air pollutants. Residues of banned synthetic chemicals (e.g., dioxin, PCB) are still found in waterways. And endocrine-disrupting pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers pollute soil, water, and food products. Being exposed to any of these toxins on a daily basis can cause chronic stress (and disease) in the body.  

Dietary Toxins
Dietary toxins are not new to humans. However, traditional populations usually found ways to minimize the impact these toxins had on human health using various crop breeding and food preparation techniques. They acquired further protection by eating very fresh and nutrient-dense diets that allowed their bodies to detoxify effectively. (5,6)

Originally, all humans were hunter-gatherers and ate different amounts of meats, insects, eggs, vegetables, and fruits. Then, about 10,000 years ago, human populations started transitioning towards agriculture. One of the new crops to make it out of the Fertile Crescent was an ancestor of modern wheat. 

While wheat provided a source of calories (as starch) it also added two new proteins into the human diet: Gluten and lectin. (7) After the Green Revolution in the 1960s, further breeding and intentional genetic mutation produced a new type of high-protein wheat that contained much more gluten and lectin. (8)

Both of these new proteins can cause problems for humans. Gluten can irritate and destroy the small intestine, causing reduced nutrient absorption and digestive stress. Wheat lectin (WGA) is a sticky glycoprotein that is so small that it can easily move through the small intestine and attach itself to various parts of the body (e.g., joints, bladder, brain). WGA can cause both insulin sensitivity and resistance, leptin resistance, and spark an immune response that might confuse immune cells, causing them to attack the human body itself (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis). (7,8)

Refined Sweeteners
While wheat has its problems, they pale in comparison to the damage that refined fructose sweeteners can inflict on any creature that eats too much of it on a regular basis. (9) Initially, sweets were confined to foods like jams, jellies, and honey. (10) Then a new sweetener was developed in India and China around sixth century AD: Crystallized cane sugar (a.k.a., table sugar). Although the Greeks and Romans were aware of sugar, it didn't get used in Europe as a food until the thirteenth century AD. However, importing/growing sugar was so expensive that it was a luxury only the rich could afford. (11)

Then came the Industrial Revolution, which made sugar cheap enough to increase average consumption from about 5 pounds per year in 1700 to about 42 pounds per year by the early 1900s. With the continued drop in sugar prices throughout the 20th century, as well as the addition of the even cheaper high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), per capita consumption of refined sweeteners in the US skyrocketed to over 140 pounds per year. Interestingly, the prevalence of previously rare degenerative diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer also went up. (9,12,13)  

It was discovered in the 1970s that highly-refined and nutrient-devoid fructose sweeteners (e.g., table sugar, corn syrup, HFCS) can cause major stress on the body when eaten. (9) If these sweeteners make up a major part of a person's diet, then this chronic stress can cause a chronic elevation of the stress hormone cortisol. This constant elevation of cortisol can be linked to many of the degenerative diseases that only affect industrialized nations that eat pseudo-foods (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, cancer). (5, 6,14) 

Shelfable foods
The Industrial Revolution also allowed food manufacturers to push the bounds of the concept of "shelfability." New techniques and chemicals were pioneered in the 19th century to create foods that could be grown, collected, processed, prepared, and shipped to customers in very little time. The resulting products could also be made to survive up to several years on a shelf without spoiling. (15)

Unfortunately, there are many problems with these modern preservation methods. In the process of using non-traditional methods to make a food that didn't easily spoil, food manufacturers created toxic pseudo-foods that weren't fit for human consumption (regardless of how delicious these foods tasted). For instance, white flour--which is already unnaturally refined and concentrated--can be chemically bleached to further extend shelf-life. One of the bleaching chemicals currently used in the US (alloxan) is suspected of attacking and destroying the cells in the pancreas that produces insulin, which can cause Type 1 diabetes. (16)

Vegetable oils are another example of progress gone wrong. In 1911, US manufacturers began to produce more polyunsaturated seed and nut oils for human consumption. Unlike butter, lard, tallow, or olive oil, vegetable oils need an intensive industrial extraction process (heat, pressure, and chemicals) to release the mostly polyunsaturated oil contained in seeds and legumes. Since polyunsaturated oil is very delicate it goes rancid as it becomes something edible (see below). Of course, customers won't buy rancid oil, so chemical deodorizers are used to remove the unpleasant odor that indicates that an oil has gone bad. If these deodorized/unsaturated oils are to appear solid at room temperature (like butter), then they have to be hydrogenated. Both partial and full hydrogenation create unhealthy man-made trans fats because the hydrogenation process is not 100% efficient. (17) The unhealthy nature of both rancid oils and trans fats are now well known.

Here is the difference between the industrial process needed to make refined oil/margarine (left) and butter (right). Other than the heat of pasteurization (which isn't necessary to make butter), butter is made by separating, aging, and churning milk. Margarine's journey is much different, requiring heat, chemicals, and hydrogenation. Click here for larger image.

Dirty Foods
Unscrupulous businesses in the US during late 1800s (primarily in cities) were cutting as many corners as they could to produce a cheap and profitable product. Some of these shortcuts exposed customers to dirty foods that spread lethal infectious diseases.

The meatpacking industry, for example, was infamously described in Upton Sinclare's book The Jungle. In his book, Sinclare talked about the corrupt actions at one meatpacking facility that produced disease-ridden meat for consumer purchase. These practices were used throughout this industry at that time. The book was so vivid in its description of unsafe meat that it quickly spurred major government food regulation. (14) Despite this regulation, today's meats can still carry lethal bacteria like e.coli and listeria. And inexpensive meats can also be cut with non-meat fillers and extenders that may have a negative impact on human health (e.g., wheat flour, soy). (19) 

This photo shows the grizzly conditions in a meat-packing plant before passage of the Meat Inspection Act in 1906.

Another unscrupulous business that encouraged food regulation was the distillery dairy, which combined a whiskey distillery with a milk dairy. To save money and supply a growing demand for fresh milk in major cities, these dairies would replace fresh green grass with spent whiskey grain, bakery scrapes, and whatever other unnatural but cheap food they could find to feed cows. The resulting milk was often bluish in color (it is supposed to be slightly yellow) and so poor in nutrition that it couldn't be made into butter. Worst of all, this swill milk was so dirty that it is believed to be responsible for the high infant mortality seen in major US cities at this time (upwards of 30% in some states). Modern containment dairies are only slightly improved from distillery dairies (now feeding cows spent ethanol waste, corn, and bakery leftovers). (20,21)

Today, consumers are still threatened by dirty foods. The CDC estimates that every year at least 48 million Americans are made sick because of dirty food. Government regulators can only see so much and foods labeled "certified organic" don't guarantee that a food is pathogen-free.  

Pharmaceutical Toxins
The 20th century also gave rise to toxins that are neither dietary nor environmental: Prescription drugs. The pharmaceutical industry got started as a way to help an ailing population deal with the sudden rise of seemingly new degenerative diseases (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, cancer). (22)

While "wonder drugs" can manage many of a disease's symptoms, they do so with very nasty toxic side effects. Here are just a few examples:
  • Aspirin can destroy the stomach. 
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can destroy the liver.
  • Corticosteriods have particularly nasty side effects. Being a pharmaceutical form of the stress hormone cortisol, it can produce all the side effects of a chronic excess of this powerful hormone: Abdominal obesity, suppressed immune system, poor wound healing, insulin resistance, insomnia, and muscle wasting. 
  • Lipitor can raise blood sugar and cause memory problems.

Chronic Stress and Endocrine Disruption
So long as the human body is supplied with the nutrients it needs, it can do a pretty good job of dealing with a fair amount of toxin damage. (13) Unfortunately, humans currently living in Westernized countries usually eat a nutrient-poor diet while also being subjected to a never-ending stream of dietary, environmental, and pharmaceutical toxins. This one-two punch sets the stage for disease by causing both chronic stress and endocrine system interference.

Chronic Stress
Of the many problems caused by dietary and environmental toxins, chronic stress is probably the most dangerousWhen the body is stressed, it primarily uses the hormone cortisol to keep the damage from all this stress from getting out of hand.   

While normal levels of cortisol are necessary for optimal health, too much can cause: (14,23,24)
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Muscle wasting/poor body composition (less muscle and more fat)
  • Abdominal obesity
  • A suppressed cellular immune system
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia
  • Dyslipidemia
  • Insomnia

A person will experience too much cortisol when they endure chronic stress.  As long as a person is experiencing chronic stress they will also likely suffer from high blood pressure, obesity, constant infections, chronic fatigue, and insulin resistance. (14)

And when most people think of stress, they usually think of being exposed to too much anxiety, worry, work, or exercise. But any kind of stress can produce a stress response. This means that individuals also have to watch out for stressors like poor nutrition, toxin exposure, and infection load. I will cover the health effects of chronic stress in greater detail in the next installment of this series.

Endocrine Disruption
The endocrine system is comprised of glands that produce hormones. Hormones are chemical mediators that leave glands, travel through the bloodstream, and then create a response in target tissues when it binds to a hormone receptor. (25)

While most hormone receptors are usually designed to only bind to its target hormone, some environmental and dietary toxins can also bind to these receptors, either blocking or mimicking the authentic hormone. This either prevents a hormonal message from getting through to its target tissue or sends a message that was never supposed to be sent. This disruption prevents the body and brain from acting correctly. (4)

Let's take the estrogen receptor as an example. This particular receptor is considered "promiscuous" because it binds to many chemicals that are not estrogen. This allows certain dietary (e.g., phytoestrogens) and environmental chemicals (e.g., DDT, PCB, BPA) to mimic estrogen, even though these chemicals may bare little chemical resemblance to it. While some of these chemicals are no longer used, they persist in the environment (or make up the containers we use to store food) and can make its way into the food that we eat. This means that many of us are eating these mimickers, effectively elevating our estrogen levels. Excess estrogen is known to accelerate the development of cancer. (4)

Another example is the dietary wheat toxin wheat germ agglutinin (WGA). WGA is very small and can easily pass through the gut barrier and move into the bloodstream. It can then bind to both insulin and leptin receptors. Depending on what the level of insulin is, WGA can either keep insulin working longer than normal (causing more energy to be stored in fat) or block it altogether (causing excess blood sugar). When it binds to leptin receptors, it can cause leptin resistance. Both of these hormone binding characteristics of WGA can contribute to obesity.

Toxin Reduction Tips
In today's modern world, we are constantly exposed to unhealthy dietary, chemical, and synthetic toxins, making complete avoidance next to impossible. However, I don't think that you have to avoid them all to be healthy. After avoiding the 7 Deadly foods and filtering your drinking and shower water, you can continue to protect yourself by boosting your health--especially the health of your liver and immune system--with high-quality food and smart supplementation.

It seems that a healthy person can effectively resist many of the negative impacts these toxins can have on their body. I believe this because of an interesting observation of the Kitavans in Papua New Guinea. As a traditional human population--who eat very few Western foods--they don't suffer from obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, or Alzheimer's. Their cancer rates are also extremely low. Yet, they have a nearly universal love of cigarettes. Studies have also shown that as long as a smoker has no other risk factor(s) for disease (e.g., obesity, high blood pressure, high blood glucose) they will not die any earlier than a non-smoker. So it seems that as long as you enjoy a healthy diet and lifestyle, your body has a lot of latitude to effectively deal with environmental and dietary toxins. (5,6)

Here are some tips that can help you avoid or effectively deal with the common toxins found in industrialized nations:
  • Eat more nutritious whole foods. It is possible to mitigate the effects of toxins by simply consuming optimal levels of essential and beneficial nutrients (e.g., vitamins, dietary minerals, essential fats, essential proteins, antioxidants).
  • Eat organic foods. To be allowed to use the "certified organic" label, food manufacturers have to grow and produce their foods by a specific set of guidelines, which generally creates foods that may have more nutrients than industrially-produced foods. These foods may also contain less toxins (e.g., herbicides, pesticides). 
  • Eliminate the 7 Deadly Foods from your diet. The easiest way to reduce your toxin load is to eliminate the ones you eat every day. That means avoiding (or limiting) your exposure to refined sweeteners, wheat (and other gluten grains), rancid industrial vegetable oils, trans fats, or chemical additives.  
  • Gently cook and ferment most of your food. Not all foods can be eaten raw because they have chemical (e.g., lectins, phytic acid) or pathogenic (e.g., e. coli, listeria) toxins. Most of the toxins that can be found in some vegetables, meats, grains, legumes, and eggs can be neutralized by gentle cooking or brief fermentation.  
  • Stop eating pseudo-foods. Reducing or eliminating your intake of shelfable foods that come in a box, bag, or can also help you reduce much of your dietary toxin intake. 
  • Eliminate common sources of environmental toxins. Filter your water, avoid plastic containers, be careful of synthetic materials, and air out your house every week.
  • Use supplements to help the body expel toxins. Supplements like high-quality vitamin/mineral powder, milk thistle, curcumin, vitamin C, alpha lipoic acid (ALA), Chlorella, N-acetyl cystine (NAC), omega-3, and D-mannose can all offer some protection from toxins like heavy metals, free radicals, AGEs, and WGA.

As a result of the technological advances brought to us by both the Industrial and Green Revolutions we are being clobbered every day by dietary, environmental, and pharmaceutical toxins. Our health is being destroyed by:
  • A formerly healthy traditional diet that has been infiltrated with pseudo-foods like modern wheat flour, refined sweeteners, industrial vegetable oils, unfermented soy, gluten grains, trans fats, pasteurized dairy, and chemical additives.
  • An environment filled with synthetic chemicals that screw up our hormonal signalling.
  • Drugs that don't protect us from disease, they simply trade one unpleasant symptom for another. 

When a poor diet and lifestyle is combined with these everyday toxins, the human body seems predestined to develop diseases that require drugs that carry with them powerful side-effects. However, if you can clean up your diet and eliminate your chronic exposure to common dietary and environmental toxins then the human body will naturally be strong, vibrant, and healthy

Think of this approach to healthy living as building a capable military unit to fight a war. If this unit is well supplied, maintained, and allowed adequate respite between battles, then it can fight effectively for decades. However, if this unit is sabotaged and continuously ensnared in battle after battle, then it will quickly become exhausted and fall apart from fatigue.

The best approach to avoiding (or minimizing your susceptibility to) degenerative diseases is by eliminating all pseudo-foods from your diet, eating more organic meats, eggs, vegetables, and fruits, only drinking filtered water, using smart supplementation, and exercising 3-5 times a week.

In my next post, I'll talk about how controlling the chronic stressors of modern life can eliminate (or reduce) most of the symptoms of metabolic syndrome.

4. Colborn, Theo, Dumanoski, Dianne and Myers, John Peters. Our Stolen Future. Plume. New York : Penguin Group, 1997.
5. Price, Weston A. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. La Mesa, CA : The Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, Inc, 2008.
6. Lindeberg, Staffan. Food and Western Disease. Ames, Iowa : John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2010.
7. Braly, James and Hoggan, Ron. Dangerous Grains. New York : Penguin Group (USA), 2002.
8. Davis, William. Wheat Belly. New York : Rodale, 2011.
9. Yudkin, John. Pure, White, and Deadly. New York : Penguin Books, 1988.
12. Agrarian diet and diseases of affluence – Do evolutionary novel dietary lectins cause leptin resistance? J├Ânsson, Tommy, et al. 10, s.l. : BMC Endocrine Disorders, 2005, Vol. 5.
13. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Cordain, Loren, et al. 2, s.l. : American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2005, Vol. 81.
14. Farris, Russell. Potbelly Syndrome. Laguna Beach, CA : Basic Health Publication, Inc., 2005.
20. Schmid, Ron. Untold Story of Milk. Washington, DC : NewTrends, 2009.
24. Talbott, Shawn. The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA : Hunter House Inc., 2007.


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