Protect Yourself Against the “Chemical Soup”

Reduce Your Exposures, Enhance Your Body’s Defenses


We live in a chemical soup, made up of some 80,000 chemicals, most of which did not exist 70 years ago.1 Many of them end up in our food, our water, our homes, the air we breathe, and ultimately, our bodies.


 

New homes and furniture release formaldehyde, a recognized carcinogen, from carpeting, vinyl flooring, and particleboard. Electronics, cars, and mattresses are treated with chemical fire retardants. In many parts of the country, homes and soil must be treated for insect pests, such as termites—more chemicals that we breathe in. And if your house is well-insulated, airborne chemicals stay inside unless you keep the windows open. You’re no safer in the car or at the office, where you’re exposed to still more synthetic chemicals. The quantities may be relative, but their effects add up, and some people are the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine.”

There’s now compelling research showing that persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including pesticides and solvents, might accelerate the development of prediabetes and obesity. 2 3 Some POPs, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are used to make water pipes and to give clothing and furniture a leather-like appearance. More than 4,000 food contact materials (FCMs) are used in processed and packaged foods— and some FCMs can legally contain formaldehyde. You get exposed even on your way out of a store— those slick paper receipts contain bisphenol-A (BPA), a hormone-disrupting chemical. People who handle a lot of those receipts have measurably higher levels of the chemical in their blood.4 (Note: Natural Grocers’ receipts are BPA-free.)

All too many of these individual chemicals are known hormone disrupters, carcinogens, and mutagens (chemicals that can alter DNA). Especially worrisome, few of these chemicals have ever been tested to determine their combined effects. But we do have clues to the potential dangers of these chemicals. In one recent study, researchers found that the combination of supposedly safe levels of arsenic (found in many groundwater supplies) and estrogen doubled the risk of creating cancer cells.Another study found a strong relationship between pesticide exposure, folic acid deficiency, and the risk of Parkinson disease.6 Still other research has linked a variety of toxic substances, such as pesticides and chemical cleaning compounds, to autism and other types of brain disorders in children.7 8 9 It’s plenty scary. While there’s no way to completely escape these chemicals, we do have two options. One, we can work to reduce our exposure to them. Two, we can enhance our bodies’ innate ability to break down, or detox, many of these chemicals.

Minimize Your Toxic Exposures

Organic Foods

One of the most important ways you can minimize chemical exposure is to eat organic food whenever possible. Organically grown produce is free of pesticides, fumigants, and fungicides, whereas conventional produce can be contaminated with a number of different pesticides residues and other chemicals. For example, a test of one sample of conventional strawberries found 13 different pesticides, plus fumigants and fungicides.10 There’s also a nutritional bonus with organic fruits and vegetables: numerous studies have found that they contain higher levels of many health-promoting nutrients.11 12 13 14 15 In addition to choosing organic, opt for minimally processed food—that is, food that looks the way it was grown and is free of chemical preservatives, flavors, and coloring.

Plastics 

Many plastic products no longer contain BPA, but they are still major sources of scores of other chemicals. Of these is a class of compounds known as phthalates, which make plastics bendable, and are found in everything from food containers to shower curtains to toys to body care products. Especially troublesome are food containers because the chemical constituents of plastics can migrate into the food, especially when heated. Phthalates have been shown to be endocrine disrupters, chemicals that interfere with the hormonal system, potentially affecting normal development in infants and children and affecting sperm quality, and thus fertility, in men.16 17 18 A safe alternative is to use glass food containers and avoid plastics as much as possible.

Cosmetics

What you put on your body is as important as what you put in it, so it’s hard to believe that millions of people apply toxic chemicals to their face and hair every day. Most hair dyes use lead compounds and dyes derived from coal tar, a known carcinogen.19 Conventional cosmetics aren’t much better, most of them loaded with chemically derived colors, preservatives, and fragrances. Look for mineral-based lipsticks, powders, and foundations and avoid products containing parabens, phthalates, and other synthetic ingredients.

Personal Hygiene Products 

Many hand soaps, body washes, and toothpaste contain triclosan, an antibacterial compound that appears to disrupt hormone levels and ultimately contaminate the environment. Most conventional lotions and creams contain endocrine-disrupting phthalates to help lubricate and to increase penetration. Perhaps most worrisome are the number of baby care products that contain phthalates.20 Conventional antiperspirants and deodorants often contain parabens, propylene glycol, and other compounds you really don’t want to be applied to your body. Choose natural body care products that are free of these chemical ingredients; this is especially important when choosing body care products for babies and small children.

Sunscreens

The array of sunscreens in pharmacies can boggle the mind. Most of them contain an alphabet soup of synthetic chemicals, many of which are known endocrine disruptors and others that cause oxidative damage, but there are safer options. Look for a mineral-based product that provides protection from both UVA and UVB radiation. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are tried and true sunscreens—they literally block the sun’s rays from the skin. Bonus points if the sunscreen contains antioxidants such as vitamin E, green tea, or sea buckthorn for added skin protection. And there’s usually no need to get the highest SPF— SPF 15 blocks about 94 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays.

Cleaning Products

Many conventional household cleaning products release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause respiratory problems and headaches, according to the American Lung Association.21 Natural products clean toilets, showers, and tubs, and countertops just as well and are much gentler on our bodies—and the environment.

Water Filters

Chlorine in water supplies does kill germs, but some people are sensitive to this volatile chemical. Consider getting some type of water filtration system for your kitchen sink that will remove chlorine and water contaminants. You can also buy a showerhead filter that removes most of the chlorine. Need convincing? Ask your water company for a list of contaminants in ground water.

Natural Fabrics

Although they may be more costly, you’re probably better off with furniture that uses natural fabrics, such as cotton or real leather, instead of synthetics. Ditto for the bedroom, where you can use an organic cotton mattress and sheets. The same goes for clothing—opt for natural fabrics like cotton, linen, silk, and wool.

Support Your Body's Natural Detoxification Process

The liver is your body’s primary chemical-processing factory, and much of its detoxification ability relies on what biologists refer to as the P450 enzyme pathways, which are separated by function into phase 1 and phase 2 enzymes. Phase 1 enzymes break down toxins made by the body (byproducts of metabolism) and hazardous chemicals (pesticides, pollutants) that have entered the body. Think of the phase 1 enzymes as the body’s HAZMAT crew. The results of phase 1 processing are highly toxic. Phase 2 enzymes prepare these hazardous compounds for excretion—quite literally, the body’s waste stream. It is relatively easy to boost the efficiency of both the phase 1 and phase 2 enzymes through diet and supplements. Phase 1 enzymes depend on the B vitamins, glutathione, and antioxidants, including milk thistle. Meanwhile, the phase 2 enzymes depend on amino acids, particularly L-glutamine, L-glycine, Ltaurine, and L-cysteine. Garlic, cruciferous vegetables, and other sulfur-containing antioxidants are also important for the phase 2 enzymes. From a dietary standpoint, eating ample amounts of organic vegetables and quality protein are critical. The kidneys are also involved in detoxification. They filter the bloodstream and promote the removal of toxins through urine. Some of the same nutrients that support liver function, such as N-acetylcysteine (NAC), also support normal kidney function.

Glutathione Precursors

Glutathione, the potent antioxidant made by the body, plays crucial roles in both the phase 1 and 2 enzyme processes. Large numbers of free radicals are generated during phase 1 activities, and glutathione is the most important antioxidant for neutralizing these free radicals. Both alpha lipoic acid and NAC serve as its precursors. Both supplements contain sulfur, which is essential for glutathione production. NAC also contains L-cysteine, and NAC is preferred over pure L-cysteine supplements. These nutrients have many collateral benefits: alpha lipoic acid also helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels and NAC can help fight infections.22 23 Some drugs, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) can deplete glutathione levels. Try: 500-600 mg of NAC or 100-300 mg of alpha lipoic acid daily.

Antioxidants

Because large amounts of destructive free radicals (also known as oxidants) are produced during phase 1 activities, antioxidants become paramount. Although a diet rich in vegetables and fruits is important, supplementation may be advantageous. Silymarin, the antioxidant extract of the herb milk thistle may be particularly helpful, given its long track record as an aid to liver function.24 Try: A multi-antioxidant supplement, perhaps with extra vitamin C (effervescent or buffered forms of vitamin C might be preferred after chemical exposures). In addition, consider 100-300 mg daily of silymarin.

B-Complex Vitamins

This family of vitamins plays important roles in detoxification. First, all of the B complex is involved in energy production, and detox is an energy-intensive biochemical process. In addition, several of the B vitamins—particularly B6, B12, and folic acid—are involved in a chemical process called methylation, which is very active during phase 2 detox activities. Try: A high-potency Bcomplex supplement.

Amino Acids

Several nonessential (but important) amino acids are needed for a process called conjugation, which helps bind toxins for elimination during phase 2 processes. Eating adequate protein provides these amino acids, but supplementation can be helpful because it provides “free” (unbound) amino acids. You don’t need every one of the amino acids in the supplement because the body can make many of them. Of the amino acids, L-glycine is the most important for phase 2 detox processes. Try: A multi-amino acid supplement.

Vitamin C

Buffered vitamin C appears to reduce some of the damage caused by toxins. In a study of 55 people who had been exposed to toxic chemicals, researchers found that buffered vitamin C restored normal immune function in the majority of them.xxv Try: 500-1,000 mg daily.

Water and Cleansing

Our bodies are comprised mostly of water. It is therefore important to stay hydrated, but even more so when if you are doing a “cleanse.” Without sufficient water—soft drinks and coffee are not substitutes—the body’s metabolic processes will begin to slow and eventually shut down. In terms of detox, fluids are necessary for removing toxins through the urine and stool. Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to avoid exposure to chemical toxins in our environment. However, it is possible to reduce our exposures, particularly in our own homes. Additionally, eating a diet consisting largely of organic foods and taking certain supplements can enhance our bodies’ ability to break down these hazardous chemicals, minimizing their harmful effects.

References available upon request