Some toxins like alcohol are self administered, leading in severe cases to death, and in less severe cases to a horrible hangover and headache the following day. Other toxins creep surreptitiously into our bodies, such as solvents, fumes and pesticides. A surprising number result from the self-applied creams, scents and anointments that we continually spread onto our bodies. Some toxins grow and spread in our homes, like molds. Really, the list of potential exposures is almost endless. And yet our body maintains the ability to identify and clear these elements that potentially cause cellular and systemic toxicity.
Our bodies can detoxify beautifully; at least to a point.
By definition, a toxin is “a small molecule or protein that is capable of causing disease or dysfunction with cells or tissues upon contact or ingestion.” Any substance that interferes with a normal biological process, and even the most seemingly benign substance, if ingested in excessive amounts can be toxic.
For example: water is potentially toxic to the human body.
Could this statement be true? Is it possible that something as simple as water could be toxic to the human body?
The answer is “yes”. Unequivocally.
Even water, when ingested in excessive amounts, is uniformly toxic, causing assured death with little chance of survival.
The medications prescribed to us by our doctors all have toxic potential as well, either through direct effects, or indirectly through nutrient and mineral depletions that secondarily alter other systems. This is why medications are prescribed with an intended dose and dosing interval, thereby balancing the levels required for the biologic effects of the medication, the body’s need to clear the medication, and the untoward side effects of the drug. We have all seen the numerous side effects of a drug evidenced in the rapid fire disclaimers (always including death, I have noticed) at the end of every television advertisement. These result from the medication interacting with other cellular processes other than those for which the drug is primarily intended. Let’s look at an example of the ways in which a commonly prescribed, well intended medication could operate indirectly as a toxin.
For years I practiced as a women’s health care specialist, and in this time I prescribed multiple courses of oral contraceptives (birth control pills) for many different reasons. These FDA approved medications were seen as safe, with a few but specific contraindications. For this reason it was assumed that everybody could take them with an accepted balance of safety pharmacologic action.
Not uncommonly, many of these women would return to my office after being on the medication for several months with similar complaints. “I feel as if I am gaining weight”, was commonly heard. Others indicated that they “felt depressed” and had noticed lessened interest in sexual relationships- ironically one of the reasons that the birth control was often initiated in the first place. Not knowing what I do now, in spite of having attended one of the best postgraduate programs in the country for women’s healthcare, I switched pills, tried other formulations, and infrequently started an anti-depression medication (the third most selling prescription medication category in the country) to help with the new found depression.
Why was it then, in spite of my training, that nobody had ever told me about the nutritional deficiencies associated with hormonal replacement? A look into the papers published in the late 1970’s, and repeated as recently as 2013, reveals multiple reports of nutritional deficiencies, particularly in vitamin B6, B12 and possibly Folate (B9) in women using hormonal contraceptive pills. This applies to women taking hormones for menopause management as well. But how then, could these nutritional deficiencies be associated with my patient’s symptoms?
A look at the biochemistry of the B vitamins reminds us that these vitamins are important cofactors for the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates. This could be a link to the complaint of weight gain with the medication use. In the past several years, a number of clinical studies have shown a correlation between low B12, obesity and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Without the B vitamins, we interrupt the cellular machinery required to burn these fuels and to make energy. The same B vitamins are essential for the formation of the “feel good” neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Birth control pills are also known to decrease pools of the amino acid tyrosine- the same amino acid which is the backbone of the thyroid hormones T3 an T4. Could there be a connection? The medications I had prescribed in good faith and intent had functioned like a toxin, altering essential metabolic and biochemical processes. After several months of using an oral contraceptive, I frequently found my patients complaining of increased weight, decreased libido and depression. Could their B vitamin status have been a contributing factor?
Innumerable medications are known to be associated with nutritional deficiencies. Has your doctor prescribed you a blood pressure medicine, a “water pill” known as hydrochlorothiazide, or HCTZ? Are you also taking potassium? You should be. This medication has been known for years to deplete this important ion.
The cholesterol lowering Statin drugs are well known to deplete an essential molecule known as CoQ10, also known as “ubiquinone.” It is named such because it is an irreplaceable part of our body’s energy production system. It is present, ubiquitous, in every cell in the body. Its depletion in association to statin use was so apparent that the maker of the first statin drug, Merck Pharmaceuticals, applied for a patent in 1990 to include CoQ10 with the statin! (US Patent #4,933,165.) To this date, no statin drugs are marketed as a combination of the statin with CoQ10.
Several blood pressure medications are known to deplete Magnesium and Zinc. Anti-depressants are known to decrease melatonin; anti-seizure drugs tank the fat soluble vitamins A,D,E,K and folate; the “little purple pill” Nexium, omnipresent in the cabinets of every chicken-wing, beer drinking, Sunday football fan in the country, depletes the body of Calcium, Zinc and Magnesium. Could this be a link to the increasing osteoporosis- bone weakening- seen in men? The list of known medication-nutrient interactions, and likely associated clinical scenarios, goes on and on.
So what resources do we have to cleanse our bodies of our persistent exposure to toxins? The first, and most obvious way is to avoid them from the start. A mindset of consciousness directed towards this issue is often the simplest step. It encompasses an awareness that toxins exist: in our work environments, in our food and water, in our beauty products, and in the form of a prescribed medication that we take daily on the instructions of our physician. By becoming aware of their presence, you will be able to avoid them.
The second step towards a successful detoxification is will be a quick return to class to review and understand the different detoxification pathways of the liver. In an earlier blog I reviewed the science behind how toxins are cleared from our bodies, and showed how our dietary, nutritional, and supplement interventions can augment these processes. The science is intriguing, incorporating perspectives from folk medicine, basic biochemistry, and the emerging science of nutrigenomics, the way in which nutrition influences our genetic pathways. With directed nutritional interventions, we can actively dictate the way in which our genetics are read and expressed, influencing the manner and extent to which we clear these toxins.
The final step is a practical one, and easily achievable to all who chose to read these blogs and invest some time in its recommendations. The last step of detoxification is the physical elimination of the toxins from the body. There are basically four routes by which the body can eliminate the toxins once and for all. They are our sweat, our breath, our urine and our stool. Ideally we are allowing our bodies to do a deep cleaning, ensuring that each of these possible modalities to eliminate toxins is utilized and optimized. If we are unable to breathe, poop, pee and sweat, we are holding on to our toxins. Each of these factors are easily remedied.
In short, we are all toxic.
There is not a single human soul on this great Earth who does not contain even a trace amount of some pollutant in his or her body. From the Dali Lama to the aboriginal tribes in the Australian Outback, we cannot escape at least some exposure to toxins. The answer lies in the amount and duration of our exposure, the ability to usher the toxins through the appropriate metabolic pathways, and finally the ability to excrete the toxins from our bodies.
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Dr. Scott Resnick
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