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Toxins and Cellular Damage: How to Protect Yourself
by Bill Chioffi

Exposure to toxins is inevitable; sad, but true. In July of 2005, the Environmental Working Group published results from umbilical cord blood tests in 10 randomly chosen babies born in U.S. hospitals between August and September of 2004 (— See BodyBurden). The average adult has over 90 different chemicals present. Because, infants lack a fully developed detoxification system, which inhibits their ability to transform these chemicals as adults do, their burden is greater. Mercury, aluminum, pesticides, PCBs, toluene, benzene, trans fatty acids, and phthalates are also found in almost all of us in varying levels.

How are we exposed to these toxins and what can we do about it? We are exposed through ingesting foods that are contaminated with toxins, such as heavy metals in fish and non-organically cultivated vegetables, pesticides which may be found in fruits and herbs, fertilizers, and other petrochemicals. We are also exposed to plastic-based toxins, known as phthalates, through foods cooked or stored in plastic containers or covered in a plastic wrap. Generally speaking the more flexible the plastic, the more phthalates will be present. There is also the group of chemicals we are exposed to simply by breathing, called poly aromatic hydrocarbons. These are created when materials like gas, coal, and cigarettes are burned and inhaled. Cigarette smokers tend to have much higher levels of arsenic and cadmium than non-smokers.

The obvious way to reduce your exposure to chemicals is to limit your contact with them. Some are obvious, while others may be more elusive:

  • Avoid consuming the following fish (identified by the FDA to contain the highest levels of in mercury): tilefish (Gulf of Mexico), shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tuna
  • Avoid microwaving foods in plastic containers or wrappers
  • Avoid consuming beverages stored in plastic bottles, especially if they have been exposed to heat
  • Avoid eating conventionally grown produce or herbs
  • Above all, avoid or quit smoking and, when possible, avoid exposure to exhaust from motor vehicles and coal-burning manufacturing plants. Choose the button on your car that allows you to use the air within the vehicle and change the filters regularly
When a chemical is metabolized in the liver, free radicals are generated. There is an evolving understanding in Naturopathic Medicine that it is the free-radical response to a toxin that creates damage rather than the toxin itself. The main parts of the body damaged by these toxins are tiny cellular organs called mitochondria. Their job is to generate energy, operating like small power plants for the cell. When they function properly, the cell has energy and can perform its job. When impaired by chemicals, cells can go into apoptosis, or programmed cell death, and disease states can occur. Some of these diseases include: diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. These diseases occur when chemicals oxidize, or "rust away," healthy parts of our cells. In fact, 48% of the mercury found inside our bodies is stored in the mitochondria.

Milk thistle is an herb that offers cells superior protection from chemical insult. It increases an enzyme responsible for detoxification, called glutathione, in addition to helping the liver re-generate itself by stimulating protein synthesis. In a well-known European study, researchers regrew a liver in a human subject that had only 25% functionality. Even better news is that milk thistle protects the kidneys and liver against chemical damage as it detoxifies acetaminophen compounds and chemicals accumulated from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and other common medications.

Turmeric is another herb also well known for its high antioxidant value, as an antiinflammatory agent, and for its powerful ability to protect cells from carcinogenic compounds. Researchers worldwide have recognized turmeric as one of the most potent free-radical quenchers available in the plant world. Another potent herb used to increase the natural detoxification function of cells and the liver is schizandra berry, which has additional health benefits for the adrenal glands.

Gaia Herbs, located in Brevard, NC, is a leading Certified Organic grower and manufacturer of botanical medicine. They have created a patented alcohol-free liquid extract formulation in a vegetarian capsule known as Liver Health, which combines milk thistle, turmeric, schizandra, and other potent antioxidants; perfect for consumers who are looking to support the organs responsible for internal cleansing. This formula is designed to reduce the damage that may occur during the body's free-radical response upon reacting to the presence of a toxin.

To further protect your mitochondria from damage due to oxidative stress, you can also consume berries that are high in a certain type of antioxidant flavonoids called anthocyanins. These naturally occurring compounds protect our cells from free-radical damage. Blackberries and elderberries contain the highest amounts of anthocyanins. Interestingly, elderberry proanthocyanidins can be incorporated into the cells of the blood vessels and give powerful protection against heart disease, as well as being powerful immune enhancers and possessing anti-viral activity.

Broccoli is another wonderful food to consume regularly for it has been shown to protect the body from chemical damage. In fact, recent research shows broccoli sprouts may be even better as they increase CoQ10 levels and glutathione function; two things necessary to protect cells from harmful damage.

In conclusion, identifying your own personal antioxidant needs will go far in determining the appropriate steps to reduce your exposure to toxins. Those who live in cities or work in toxin-intensive environments will need more antioxidants than those living in rural areas. Regardless, everyone should begin with a balanced diet of primarily organic foods and choose household cleaners that are free of harmful chemicals. The same should be true of your choice in supplements and herbs. It is best to select products made from organic herbs, such as Liver Health and Milk Thistle Liquid Phyto-Caps from Gaia Herbs, and you can keep your body's toxic burden to a minimum.

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