In an interesting presentation at the 2018 Integrative Healthcare Symposium in New York City, Joseph Pizzorno, ND, a leading expert on toxicity and chronic disease, discussed some interesting and useful points. The first is we live in a toxic world. The EPA’s data estimates that there are 84,000 chemicals used in commerce currently. This is an approximate quadrupling over the past 40 years, and the trend is expected to accelerate over the next 30-35 years.
Most troubling is the large group that are poorly broken down in the environment, termed persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs include many chemicals and insecticides. These tend to persist in the body for decades and are more associated with triggering chronic disease. While humans have highly functional detoxification mechanisms, they are not infinite in their capacity.
An example of a food related toxin is BPA or bisphenol A, a component in plastics that are heavily used in the food supply. BPA has been used to line cans to prevent exposure of the contents and the metal surface as well as in water bottles and other containers. BPA is a xenoestrogen, meaning a chemical that comes from outside the body and mimics the effects of estrogen. These estrogen-mimicking, hormone-like properties raise concern about its suitability in some consumer products and food containers.
The difficulty with these chemicals is that they are approved after only shorter-term safety testing and yet their toxic effects occur primarily after long-term exposure to repeated small amounts. The reality is that we typically do not learn of the potential dangers of these products until they have been in use for 10-15 years.
Some of the most informing research about BPA has come from studies of the Agouti mouse.(1) This mouse has a gene that when activated during gestation causes most of the pups to be born with a yellow coat and very prone to developing obesity and metabolic disease. The identical litter twins
in whom the gene does
not activate are born lean and disease resistant. The mice shown are identical
twins, one with the Agouti gene activated (yellow) and the other with it
present but not activated.
This research manipulated BPA exposure as well as nutrient exposure to see how these factors would affect the number of mice in a given litter that would have the Agouti gene activated. When the mothers were exposed to BPA in amounts typical to that of typical human exposure, the percentage of the litter with the gene activated was significantly increased. When the mother was given nutrients such as vitamins B12, B6 and folate used in an important process called methylation which helps with detoxification, the litter is biased towards more of the mice being born with the gene inactive.
The author of this research summarized that this knowledge helps to understand the effect of nature (genetic make-up) and nurture (environmental influence of genetic activation) on disease risk. Toxins interact with the patterns of human gene activation which is highly influential on disease risks.
The number of chemicals and potential toxins in our environment and food supply is staggering. Protecting ourselves must come from a combined effort of minimizing exposure and maximizing inherent detoxification mechanisms.
There are several steps involved in minimizing exposure to toxins. There is important merit to eating organic. This minimizes exposures to a broad range of chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides used in commercial growing. I had a vivid lesson as to how much this is an issue. About 35 years ago a friend who managed a large orchard complex and packing plant got a call about a problem at the plant. He invited me to go along when he went to investigate this.
Large wooden crates of apples were brought to one end of the processing/packaging line and dumped into a bin of water. They floated to the other end of the tank in about 30 seconds and went onto a belt under a blow dryer. Hardly enough to remove chemical residues. The next step was spraying with wax, a step that I could only think was sealing in any chemical residues. When I asked how many applications of different chemicals were applied over the season, the stunning answer was about 25.
Other layers of protection include avoiding processed and packaged food as much as is possible. Walk the isles of any grocery store and read the ingredient lists. Some things such as synthetic dyes are recognized as chemicals. A general rule is that those you do not know what they are, are likely to be chemicals. Most people begin to appreciate that about 20-30% of most highly processed foods are chemicals.
Packaging adds other concerns regarding toxic exposure. BPA is a classic example of a packaging-based toxin. Microwave in the bag vegetables are another example. Heat can leech organic compounds from plastic packaging.
Given all the care possible, there will still be exposure which means it is important to have detoxification mechanisms highly functional. These mechanisms are dependent on a high nutrient diet as discussed above. The same considerations about eating “cleaner” food ensures higher nutrient density. The levels of the essential nutrients have been shown to be about 30% greater in organic produce. The >15,000 phytonutrients such as flavonoids, many of which are highly involved in helping our detoxification, have been shown to be about 70% denser in organic produce.
Toxicity is an important disease contributing concern. Although the sources are many, food is the top concern. The often expressed concern about eating healthier is that it is a little more expensive. This is only true in the short-term. Nothing is more expensive than dealing with long-term, chronic illness.
1) Dolinoy DC. The agouti mouse model: an epigenetic biosensor for nutritional and environmental alterations on the fetal epigenome. Nutr Rev. 2008 Aug; 66(Suppl 1): S7–11.