Toxicity and Health
11 April 2005
Early in April 2005 the American Cancer Society reported that more than 60 percent of all cancer deaths could be prevented if Americans stopped smoking, exercised more, ate wholesome food and got recommended cancer screenings. This gave me pause to think about what other measures we can actively take to safeguard our health. A big issue, barely hinted at in the American Cancer Society statement, is the adverse effects of toxicity in our environment on our bodies.
The modern world we live in is a world brimming with toxins: in our food, our air and our water. These include pesticides, chemical food additives, emissions from the burning of organic fuels, and hormones used in animal farming.
Regular readers of this newsletter know that I believe that STRESS, especially in urban areas, is one of the most dangerous toxins. To this toxic load many of us add an extra burden by eating highly processed foods, ingesting alcohol, caffeine and recreational drugs and by inhaling cigarette and marijuana smoke.
Environmental toxins disrupt normal metabolic functioning in the body which over time can lead to poor quality of life at best or, at worst are implicated in a slew of vaguely defined diseases, some reaching epidemic proportions today: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases (Ulcerative Colitis, etc.), infertility and cancer.
In this newsletter I will explore these questions: how “toxic” are we (and why), how do we know if we are and what can we do about it?
It is interesting to consider this topic now that spring is finally emerging. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) each season is associated with an internal organ system. For spring that is the liver organ system which includes the actual liver organ. In Western medicine the liver is the organ that does most of the work of detoxification.
1. Detoxification 2. Western Medicine
3. Chinese Medicine
4. Synthesis of Treatment
5. Toxicity Survey
6. Turning Point Acupuncture news
The human body is an incredible creation. We are exquisitely developed to handle our unique environment: 24 hours a day, day in and day out, our body undertakes complex tasks without our conscious participation including: respiration, digestion and the circulation of blood and other vital fluids. Detoxification is one of these ongoing processes.
2. Western Medicine
From a Western clinical point of view detoxification of a patient is only considered in the field of Addiction Medicine. The toxins are considered those substances for which we can develop a dependency and which will result in our having painful withdrawal symptoms if withheld. These include heroin, methadone, barbiturates, alcohol and benzodiazepines (including valium and many sleep aids).
In Western Medicine we know the liver to be the body’s main organ of detoxification. Almost all chemicals, including pharmacological agents and alcohol, are metabolized in the liver. When the liver’s ability to break down these toxins is overwhelmed, the liver cells themselves are damaged. The end stage of such liver damage is most dramatically seen in alcoholic cirrhosis. The liver also produces bile which is important to the digestion of fatty foods. The bile, as the secretion of the liver, is also the vehicle that carries the breakdown of toxins to the bowel for excretion in the stool.
Vast amounts of toxic substances found in our modern environment including pesticides and other carcinogens are stored in the fat cells of our body. Fat is mobilized to provide the body with fuel when the body is deprived of food. This is a serious consideration when so much of the nation is on a diet and often skipping meals. It has even more impact when applied to fasting.
3. Chinese Medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the change of seasons is very important. TCM is based on Taoism and a keen observation of nature. Each season has an associated organ system. TCM practitioners vigilantly monitor the corresponding, and thus sensitive, organ system with each seasonal change. In fact, in China it is common for people to get an acupuncture tune-up at that time to be in optimal health for the months to come.
Spring in TCM is associated with the liver organ system which includes the actual liver organ. The role of the liver organ system in Chinese Medicine is to harmonize and smooth bodily functions. Changes in the Liver Qi, be it from external toxins or from stress, result in blockages of the flow of Qi and a subsequent decline in the smooth functioning of all the systems. On an emotional level Liver Qi stagnation results in anger, frustration and depression and hinders our ability to deal with personal issues.
TCM does not embrace a theory of detoxification. There are no fasting or purging regimes; rather treatment is aimed at bringing the life force energy (Qi) and the internal organs into balance. If you are truly sick, your body will take an action (e.g. vomiting, diarrhea or sweating) to try to right itself. Chinese Medicine is about balance.
So how can TCM help us in today’s polluted world?
I have always envisioned my mission of to be adapting TCM to contemporary needs. Acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, the practice of QI Gong and Tai Qi are some of the tools of TCM. All keep the Qi flowing freely through the body, allowing the excretory organs of the body to perform their functions efficiently. Acupuncture, in particular, improves microcirculation and encourages the optimal functioning of cells.
We live in the 21st century. How can we mitigate against the unhealthy compounds in our environment?
First we need to acknowledge that we live in a polluted world. Some exposure to toxins can not be avoided. We have to breathe the air, for one. But we do have a lot of choices when it comes to what we put in our mouths. When people ask me what is so bad about drinking some alcohol or eating excessive amounts of sugar or fried food, I always think about how hard our body is already working on the cellular level to deal with our environment. Why make it harder by consciously ingesting a toxin?
Similarly, according to TCM there is a critical need to reduce the stress in our lives because it damages the liver. Stress sets off a cascade of injurious metabolic processes in the body that hurts us over time.
To reduce our intake of environmental toxins, we can drink filtered water and eat organic foods without pesticides and animal products without antibiotics and hormones. We can use air filters in our homes and offices.
When I have a patient who is not well, particularly if there are many systems involved, my first approach is to use TCM to balance the body and to optimize the function of the internal organs. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are used as indicated. Nutritional advice and life style changes, including exercise regimes, may be discussed.
But for the complex patient, more and more I have come to believe that removing “the toxic load” from the body helps the body to heal itself - a concept harmonious to TCM.
How to best do that?
Eager readers of alternative health literature often ask if they should “do a liver cleanse” or “fast” to clear the toxins from their bodies. There are some healing traditions, Ayurvedic Medicine for example, that encourage fasting especially after the Vernal Equinox. However, neither TCM nor Western medicine, the two disciplines in which I am trained, advises these treatments.
Some common “liver cleansing” techniques involving concoctions of apple juice, olive oil, lemon juice and sometimes Epsom salts, are very harsh on the body and are unlikely to result in any improvement in health. Fasting can result in the release of toxins previously stored in the fat cells. Releasing these into the body un-buffered is can be a dangerous undertaking, particularly without guidance from someone skilled in this medical practice.
In TCM we would never encourage an individual, and especially not a weakened one, to undertake a Qi depleting activity like a fast or liver cleanse.
My treatment approach to the complex patient is to do TCM along with a gentle and supportive detoxification program that has two components:
A Silymarin (milk thistle) herbal based detoxifying agent combined with a hypo-allergenic medical food. The macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) in the medical food support the body’s metabolic needs while encouraging the conjugation and removal of toxins by the liver and kidneys. This is accomplished via the conversion of toxins previously stored in fat into water soluble compounds that can be excreted in the urine.
Along with a hypo-allergenic diet, these two products form the basis of a comprehensive three week detoxification program.
5. Toxicity survey
How do you know if you are toxic?
One easy way to determine if you have symptoms related to toxic load is to take this Health survey.
If you score greater than 50 points overall or 10 in any subset, chances are that you would benefit from detoxification treatment.