In these polarized times, one thing most of us can agree on is that we live in a toxic environment. Our water, air, earth and bodies are highly polluted with thousands of chemicals, heavy metals, pollutants, plastics, xenoestrogens, pesticides, herbicides, toxic waste and more. Even those of us who are conscious of the foods we eat, the products we use on our bodies and the cleaning items we use in our homes, are continually bombarded with environmental toxins that we have no control over. So cleansing seems like a no-brainer, right? Clean out the toxins and start fresh. As with most thing that sound too good to be true, it's just not that simple. Let's start with a little walk down memory lane...
Our food supply wasn't always so polluted. 100 years ago, all food was organic because that was the only way to farm. Petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides did not come into widespread use until after World War 2. They were seen as a way to promote better, more-efficient agriculture while providing jobs and usefulness to a less-necessary segment of the economy, military weapons, aircraft, etc. (Of course the military-industrial complex is with us to stay for the foreseeable future, but after the intense military production of WW2, there was a huge slow-down in the need for such destructive items. What to do with the factories and people trained to turn out petroleum products? Put it to agricultural use!) The effects of the increased efficiency have been devastating to our collective health and well-being. Chronic, long-term debilitating illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and more have exploded in the last several decades. So have the profits of a an increasingly smaller number of companies that control our food distribution and supply.
Along with the enormous and growing use of petroleum-based chemicals in our agriculture, we also face assault from genetically-modified crops designed to withstand high doses of antibiotics and other chemicals used to obliterate weeds and other pests (which are outwitting the herbicides and pesticides and only getting stronger, it turns out). Add the government’s (mistaken) edict to avoid saturated fat and cholesterol to (supposedly) help us avoid heart disease and obesity, among other ills, and we find ourselves in a perfect storm of long-term chronic illness.
Sound depressing? Take heart, because there are ways to minimize the harmful impacts of our current situation. And it all starts with the food we eat every day. Creating the nutritional habits that minimize the damage and maximize our health is a far better approach than periodic cleansing. Our bodies are under daily assault from the barrage of toxins, so a daily approach to keeping our system in the best possible shape is what's needed.
Before we get into what foods are best to help you stay healthy, vibrant, energetic and feeling great (yes, it really is possible to feel that way the vast majority of the time), let’s go into a little bit of detail about how our bodies “detox” from the on-going chemical assaults they face day in and day out. This is important to understand what building blocks our bodies need for this critical purpose.
You may already know that your liver is the main organ of detoxification, along with the kidneys, and skin. There are other ways our bodies rid themselves of toxins, but we will focus on these three for the purpose of this discussion.
Let’s start with the liver: It’s not a “dumping ground” for toxins. Think of it more like a river. Blood passes through the liver which filters out dangerous chemicals. These chemicals, many of which are lipophilic, or fat-loving, tend to bind to fat and if not filtered out efficiently, are stored in our adipose, or fat, tissue. In a healthy liver, toxins are made water-soluble, so that they can be disposed of through the urine and/or sweat. Our livers are highly efficient and when given adequate nutrition (we’ll discuss what that looks like below) are usually able to effectively dispose of fairly high loads of toxins. To understand what good nutrition looks like to the liver, we must first look in more detail at how the liver performs its functions:
Oxidation. As I mentioned, the liver can turn fat-binding chemicals into water-soluble chemicals. It does through the use of enzymes known collectively as cytochrome P540. The particular enzyme used depends on the specific toxin being rendered water-soluble. The process of turning fat-soluble chemicals, which are relatively stable, into water-soluble chemicals, is a reactive one that releases free radicals which are themselves damaging to our systems. This requires adequate antioxidants to be present to negate the free radicals and their potential damage. The fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E are important in mopping up the free-radicals generated by the conversion of the toxins.
At this point, the toxins are quite reactive and need to be further processed in order to be excreted. That brings us to:
Conjugation. The liver’s job at this point is to make the toxin water-soluble enough to be released via the kidneys (urine) or skin (sweat). It does this by adding another substance to the toxin to dilute it. The particular substance varies depending on the specific toxin, but sulfur-rich foods and certain amino acids provide many of the necessary nutrients that are helpful in completing this step.
This is of course a major simplification of a complex and on-going process. Our livers do an incredible job of keeping us healthy. This quick overview is just meant to give you an idea of what takes place in the amazing liver.
Now we know that many, if not most, toxins in our environment are lipophilic, and it’s (mostly) the liver’s job to rid our bodies of these toxins. If toxins are fat-loving, wouldn’t it make sense to avoid fat altogether to avoid the toxins? Especially fats from animals which tend to bioaccumulate toxins in their tissues? Not so fast. Turns out that the right kind of fats are crucial to our liver’s health, and our overall well-being and health.
As mentioned above, the liver requires vitamins A, D and E to effectively neutralize free-radical damage. But it’s not just your liver that needs these vitamins for that purpose, it’s every cell of your body. The forms of vitamins A and D that are efficiently absorbed and utilized are from animal sources. Our bodies simply can’t convert beta-carotene into Vitamin A. (Beta-carotene is an important antioxidant in its own right, but is not a substitute for Vitamin A.) Vitamin D is found almost exclusively in animal foods, except for mushrooms which can generate their own Vitamin D. Vitamin D found in almost any other plant-based foods has been added in, usually as the less bioavailable form of D2, or ergocalciferol. D3, or cholecalciferol, is what is produced by our skin when exposed to sunlight, and it is what is found in animal products containing Vitamin D. It is also the more easily absorbed and utilized from of the vitamin. Vitamin E is available from both plant and animal sources. Avoid the synthetic version found in pill form or in multivitamins. Our bodies can’t use it.
Bile is an important component of the detox process which takes place in our livers. It is critical in helping to digest fats in the stomach and small intestines, and in the liver it helps metabolize fat as well as the vitamins discussed above. It also metabolizes Vitamin K, which is essential to strong, healthy bones and teeth. One of the main ingredients in creating bile is cholesterol. Additionally, cholesterol is a crucial component for brain health. It is critical to produce estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Cortisol is also produced from cholesterol, and is important in helping regulate blood-sugar as well as waking us up in the morning. Cholesterol is so important in our bodies that we are capable of making it if it is not provided from the foods we eat. This process of making cholesterol in the body is energy-intensive and not particularly efficient. It is not found in plant foods, only in animal foods. Egg yolks are a rich source of cholesterol and choline, another nutrient with far-reaching benefits for the brain, detoxification process, and more.
So what should we be eating to get the most nutrition into our bodies in order to enjoy robust health and keep our bodies as free as possible from the effects of the onslaught of environmental toxins? This is a situation where quality matters. A lot. Relying on industrially-produced, highly-refined and denatured edible food-like substances (to borrow a term from Michael Pollan) is the quick way to chronic illness and lethargy. It’s important to eat real food, ie, not food that comes in plastic or has a long list of ingredients, most of which are unpronounceable to anyone but white-coated chemists. So here’s a starting point of what to eat:
Pasture-raised butter: Butter from pastured cows is a rich source of fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K. It is also high in beta-carotene, which is an important antioxidant, and conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, which is a potent metabolism-booster and immune-system-enhancer, among other functions.
Bone broth: This is an abundant source of many nutrients, collagen, amino acids and minerals that enhance digestion and the health of the digestive tract, and support liver health and detoxification. The nutrients in bone broth also help skin stay youthful and supple, and joints to stay strong and healthy.
Eggs from pastured chickens: Eggs are one of the most perfect foods. Getting eggs from chickens allowed to truly roam around outside, scratching in the dirt and eating insects and worms, is crucial. Don’t be fooled by the claims of “cage-free” or “free-range” on egg cartons. These are mostly meaningless marketing terms.
Raw, grass-fed milk: Raw milk produced by cows grazing on fields that have not been sprayed by toxic pesticides is an incredibly good source of fat-soluble vitamins A and D. When cows are fed commercial feed, shut in small stalls and deprived of sunlight, these vitamins are diminished. Because pasteurization destroys enzymes, denatures proteins, and lowers the vitamin content of the milk, raw milk is a truly nutrient-dense food. Pasteurized milk (even organic) is best avoided. Raw milk is also a wonderful source of glutathione. Glutathione is an incredible detoxifier and has been elevated to the status of “master antioxidant” by many nutritionists because it increases the activity of all the other antioxidants as well as vitamins C and E.
Meat from grass-fed cows: Meat from pastured cows is higher in CLA, Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids, and Vitamin E. It also does not contain antibiotics or artificial hormones, which are endocrine disruptors in our bodies. Plus, it’s far better for the environment.
Wild-Caught fish, such as salmon and tuna: Wild-caught, not farmed, fish, particularly salmon, is high in Vitamin D, Omega 3 EFAs, and an important antioxidant called astaxanthin.
Fermented vegetables: Sauerkraut and kimchi are traditional foods that provide ample amounts of vitamins, enzymes, and probiotics. All of these are important factors in healthy digestion which is crucial for overall health and wellbeing.
Organic fruits and vegetables: “But I can’t afford to eat organic!” The first step here is to ask “Why is cheap food so cheap?” rather than complaining about the cost of food that is actually good for you and the environment. The best way to stay healthy is to avoid the toxins in the first place, and numerous studies have shown that organic fruits and vegetables are significantly lower in such toxins. That said, here is a list of fruits and veggies that are less-highly pesticide and herbicide laden that are okay to buy non-organic versions of. And here is a list of fruits and veggies that are worth paying the extra money to get organic to avoid the heavy load of environmental toxins. Buying local when possible is an added bonus because it helps to support local farmers and usually provides fresher, seasonal, and therefore more nutrient-rich, food.
Other things you can do to reduce your toxic load are:
Move your body! Regular movement helps reduce stress and keeps circulation robust, which in turn helps the elimination of toxins from our blood. It also increases lymphatic drainage, another important piece of the detox puzzle.
Get enough sleep. Our bodies do most of their repair during the time we sleep.
Reduce stress. When we are constantly stressed-out, our bodies spend more time in our sympathetic nervous system. This is our fight-or-flight nervous system, and when it is in dominant mode, our bodies divert energy to the muscles to get ready to run, rather than to the liver to detox our body, or to the digestive system to break down and assimilate the food we eat. The first imperative is to stay alive or there is nothing to detox, after all. Our minds and bodies don’t know the difference between a saber-tooth tiger and the ongoing pressure of working too much, too many bills, too much traffic, etc. Getting adequate nutrition will help reduce the negative impact of too much stress. So will regular movement. And...
Daily meditation or other mindfulness practice. Even five minutes a day has tremendous benefit to reduce stress.
Dry-brush your skin. This helps circulation and removes dead skin cells, which make your skin less efficient at detoxing through sweat.
Use a dry sauna. Enhances circulation, promotes sweating to release toxins through the skin, and helps to gently release toxins stuck in fat cells.
You may notice that “cleansing” or fasting or other quick-fix forms of detoxification are not listed here. Those can be anywhere from completely ineffective to downright damaging. A much better approach is the slow-and-steady, day-in-day-out approach of eating nutrient-dense foods, and getting enough movement and rest. Simple but very highly effective, and never damaging.
This is a very quick overview of a very complex, important and often confusing topic. My intention is to give you a starting point for finding an approach to wellness and vitality that works for you. If you are ready to dive in and build the daily habits of nutrition, movement, mindset and lifestyle that will help you feel your best and avoid the most dire consequences of our toxic world, check out my ecourse “Six Weeks to Abundant Energy”.