Walk into any health food store and in the supplement aisle you will find a shelf of products claiming to aid in detoxification. What do these products detoxify? Well, toxins. The combination of these ideas - toxins and detoxification - is perhaps the most pervasive of any throughout the world of alternative medicine. Is there any foundation to them, or is it all hype and snake oil?
While the word toxins is used rather haphazardly by many in the alternative medicine world, it refers to a collection of very real substances in the body. Over the course of any given day, we are exposed to a wide range of subtances that are not nutritive to our bodies. Many of these substances are coming in through our diet, substances added to foods. Read any label on packaged food and there is likely to be one or several chemicals added to the food as preservatives, colorings, flavorings or texturizers.
Once inside the body, these cannot be put to any positive use. They must be gotten rid of, and a set of enzymes have to do that work. If these enzymes aren't functioning optimally, these substances accumulate and they interfer with normal functioning. In this sense, these substances become toxic.
Common food additives have well-documented negative effects on health, widely used additives such as carrageenan (intestinal inflammation), sodium benzoate (damages DNA and kills immune cells) and FD&C Red #3 (suppressed thyroid function) to name only two. Note that these toxic effects are not just possible, but documented. That these are common ingredients in our food simply means that millions of adults and children are exposed to these toxic chemicals daily, even several times each day.
In addition to toxic substances in our food, we have environmental exposures as well. One that is ubiquitous in our food and environment is the most widely used herbicide on the planet, Round Up. There is a growing list of scientific publications that document the toxic effects of Round Up and its active ingredient, glyphosate, in humans. See, for example, here and here. Unfortunately, the FDA took Monsanto's word for it that glyphosate was safe for humans. Thus, its level in our food is not tracked at all. We have no idea how extensive our exposure is.
Beyond glyphosate, we are exposed to thousands of chemicals throughout our days and weeks in water and the air. Each one must be eliminated by the body else they accumulate, leading to toxicities resulting from suppression of normal function of the cells they impact.
Next in line are metabolic wastes that can be toxic if not processed and eliminated adequately. In the course of daily cellular function toxic materials are constantly generated: nitrogen wastes, reactive free radicals and even cyanide are incessantly being produced in our cells and must be eliminated so as not to cause symptoms of toxicity.
There is dramatic individual variation in the ability to process any and all of these substances. Genetic variations in detoxification enzymes mean that two individuals exposed to identical levels of a toxic substance can have dramatically different responses to that exposure. One person might have no symptoms at all due to quick elimination, while the other may become sick for days or weeks if genetic issues slow down their detoxification enzymes.
In the next post in this series I will look more closely at the concept of detoxification, what it means and how it is accomplished. Just as toxins are real things, so is the process of detoxification.