In The Autoimmune Solution, I walk you through the four pillars of my protocol for preventing and reversing autoimmune disease. This is part three of a four-part series on each pillar. Read the other parts here:
Pillar III: Tame the toxins.
For many people, 80% of healing occurs while simultaneously addressing Pillar I (Heal Your Gut) and Pillar II (Get Rid of Gluten, Grains, & Legumes). If you haven’t seen full reversal of your symptoms, we need to dig deeper. Pillar III is all about addressing and reducing your exposure to toxins.
As I do in my book, I want to give you some powerful information, and I don’t want you to get overwhelmed or freaked out. The point of this article is to give you enough information for you to know toxins are a serious issue for all of us and especially those with autoimmunity and other chronic illnesses, and then I want to focus on the solution. It’s the solution that really matters here, and it’s what you need to take away from this article. My intention is to give you actionable steps to help you to reverse and prevent autoimmunity. Ok, here we go!
What is a “toxin”?
A toxin is a poison–any substance that’s dangerous to the human body. That includes things you know are a problem such as heavy metals like lead, mercury, and cadmium, industrial chemicals and pollutants, and pesticides. But it can also include common products you may not think of as being toxic, such as home cleaning products, body products, and even makeup. Then there is a category many have never even heard of –mycotoxins (the volatile-organic compounds released by certain types of mold).
How do toxins get into your body?
You might be thinking you aren’t exposed to many toxins because you live a very “clean” lifestyle. In reality, you are exposed to thousands of toxins every day, even if you don’t live in a polluted area or work in an industrial job. They’re found in the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat, and in the cosmetics, cleaning products, and cookware you use every day–and in fact our government has approved them and said they are safe. As of right now, about 80,000 chemicals are registered for use in the US, and every year about 1,700 more are quickly approved in less than a month and with little to no testing. Our government leaves it up to the company itself to do the testing and tell us it’s safe. And if a product is made up of five ingredients they test each one separately for safety–not all five together. And yes, these chemicals do wind up inside your body.
So how do these toxins end up in our bodies? We breathe them in through the air, we eat and drink them, and our skin absorbs them.
We breathe them in: People spend an estimated 90% of their time indoors. Considering that indoor air can be up to five times more polluted than outdoor air, it’s no surprise that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks indoor air pollution as one of the top 5 environmental risks to public health. Of course, there’s pollution outside your home too, and toxins can easily build up in your body when you are constantly breathing them in.
We eat and drink them: A conventional diet is full of pesticide-treated produce and animals who have been given artificial growth hormones and antibiotics. The National Research Council claims that, in children especially, dietary intake of pesticides accounts for most pesticide exposure.
Since more than half of your body is comprised of water, the quality of your water is tied directly to your health. Heavy metals, chemicals from plastic, and other pollutants can get into your body through your drinking water, or through your skin when you bathe. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) discovered in a 3-year study that 85% of the population in the US consumes water with about 316 contaminants, most of which are completely unregulated.
We absorb them through our skin: Your skin is your largest organ and your main barrier to the outside world. Substances ranging from the beneficial to the bad come into contact with your skin and can be absorbed into your bloodstream. That includes the chemicals in soap, makeup, lotions, and cleaning products, and even heavy metals and pollutants in water.
The average person uses 10-15 personal care products per day, each with 125 different ingredients, and many of these chemicals are approved for use by the FDA with little or no safety testing.
It may seem like just a little exposure here–to pesticides when you eat conventionally grown produce–or a little exposure there–to mercury in your dental fillings. But each exposure adds to your body’s toxic burden. Think of your body like a cup, and toxins like drops of water: if your cup is already full because you have a leaky gut, a poor diet, infections, and stress, those small, cumulative toxic exposures cause that cup to overflow. When it does, you’re pushed down the autoimmune spectrum into full-fledged autoimmune disease.
Toxic Triggers: How Toxins Cause Autoimmunity
The effects of toxins on our bodies is complex. After all, there are thousands of chemicals out there, and we’re just beginning to understand how they work on the body–not to mention, how they work in conjunction with one another. What we do know is that a heavy toxic burden puts you at greater risk for developing an autoimmune disease, and there are a few theories as to why.
One thought is that certain toxins, especially heavy metals, physically damage your tissues. Your immune system no longer recognizes these damaged cells as part of your own body, and attacks them, thinking they’re foreign invaders.
Another theory is that the damage inflicted by toxins elicits an inflammatory response from the immune system. The constant assault of chronic exposure puts the immune system on high alert. It begins attacking everything–including your own tissues.
All of this may seem overwhelming, but there is a solution. My goal is to give you enough information so you are informed and want to take action. I don’t want you to feel hopeless and paralyzed, because there’s so much you can do. Yes, you will always be exposed to toxins in your environment, but you can use these prevention and detoxification strategies to lighten your toxic burden, and help get your immune system back on track.
What is the Solution?
I like to break it into two main toxin-taming strategies: prevention and detoxification. You can of course read about these in more detail in my book.
The best thing you can do to lighten your toxic burden is to prevent the toxins from getting into your system in the first place. You may not have control over everything, but you do have control over your own home. I myself focus my efforts on keeping my own home environment as clean as possible: I eat only organic food and I use nontoxic cookware (see my guide to healthy cookware here).
If your home is toxin-free, you’ll have a little bit more leeway when you go out into the environment. Here are four ways to make your home as toxin-free as possible:
- Clean your air. You may not be able to clean the air outside, but you can keep the air inside your home as toxin-free as possible. I recommend getting a HEPA filter for your home and office. I use AIRDoctor® air filters in my home and at my office.
- Clean your water. You absorb toxins in the water you drink, and you also absorb them through your skin when you bathe. I recommend installing water filters on your sinks and shower taps. I myself have a full-house filtration system. Avoid drinking out of plastic bottles (yes, even BPA-free plastics!).
- Buy clean food. Eat organic whenever possible. It can be expensive, so when you can only buy some things organic, buy organic meats. Animals are at the top of the food chain, and if they’re consuming pesticides in their feed, you are too, but in a magnified dose. In The Autoimmune Solution, I help you prioritize your grocery list by explaining which foods have the highest and lowest concentrations of toxins.
- Buy clean body products. You’ve heard the saying, “you are what you eat.” I like to add to that and say, “you are what you apply.” Many personal care products are made with hormone-mimicking chemicals that can be absorbed through your skin. If you find it overwhelming to replace your body products with cleaner options all at once, try replacing one item at a time over the next few months. Every replacement you make takes away from your toxic burden. In The Autoimmune Solution, I give you a list of common toxins found in body products and resources to help you avoid them.
Some of my patients face additional toxic burdens. When someone isn’t getting any better after going through The Myers Way®, I suspect that significant heavy metal exposure or mycotoxin exposure could be to blame. Treatment for heavy metal or toxic mold exposure may require prescription medications and should be done under the care of a functional medicine practitioner. I go into much greater detail on both of these topics in The Autoimmune Solution.
Prevention is key, because once you do have toxins in your body, you need to get them out. Your body is constantly working to excrete toxins on its own, and those of us with autoimmune diseases often have a harder time detoxing than others. A key part of The Myers Way® is supporting your body’s own natural detoxification.
Drink lots of water, and do something that will make you sweat. One of my favorite strategies is to use an infrared sauna to help detoxify. Infrared saunas are especially useful for those who are limited in their ability to exercise.
Most of your detoxing is done through your liver, so the goal is to support your liver during this process. The nutrients you’ll be eating while on The Myers Way® will help your liver mobilize the toxins that are in your tissues. Your body’s biggest detoxifier is glutathione, so I recommend supplementing with extra glutathione or N-Acetyl-Cysteine (which is a precursor to glutathione) while your body is trying to excrete toxins, especially if you are anywhere on the autoimmune spectrum.
For More Information
Heather White, Executive Director of the Environmental Working Group, and I sit down to talk about the toxic burden that we all unfortunately carry. Together, we discuss how our direct, personal connection with our environment relates to autoimmunity in Knowledge is Power: Understanding the Toxins We Are Exposed to And What to Do About It.