How many toxins are you exposed to on a daily basis? The answer: too many. MiNDFOOD spoke with naturopath, clinical nutritionist and founder of Awaken Your Health, Tabitha McIntosh, about how we can reduce toxins both from the food we eat and the things we use – and why we should.
In a world where toxic threats seem to be increasing instead of decreasing, what do you think are some of the most pressing issues that the general public need to be made aware of, in terms of why these toxins could be doing us a whole lot of harm?
Over the last 80 years, global production of man-made chemicals has increased from 1 million tonnes per year to 40 million tonnes per year, and many more chemicals are made inadvertently when individual chemicals combine. Wherever we look: marine systems, Antarctica, birds, alligators, sperm whales, our children; the impacts of chemicals can be found. This paints a very sobering picture, one that indicates that we are all unwittingly subjects of an uncontrolled global experiment.
The effects of accumulative chemical exposures on human reproductive health and development are already debilitating, and future generations are likely to be exposed to even greater risk. The increasing prevalence of many modern-day chronic illnesses, reproductive concerns, allergies, and neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism spectrum disorders and ADHD are being linked to chemicals that we are exposed to on a daily basis.
It is now widely recognized that the developing bodies of infants and children are at greatest risk from these chemical exposures, due to their biochemical differences and their exquisite vulnerability as they develop, however environmental chemicals do affect all of us. Some exposures to pesticides and environmental chemicals are unavoidable. Despite this, many every day items found around our homes and workplaces can emit chemicals that combined, create a toxic cocktail inside our homes and bodies. Individually, each toxin may seem inconsequential, however in combination they can create havoc to sensitive body systems like our hormonal system, as well as having potential to create irreversible harm if exposures take place at a ‘critical window’ of development in an infant.
There seemed to be such a disconnect between the way people choose to live – daily habits – and health outcomes. Every day in clinic I witness the void in public awareness as to where these chemicals are found, how they may accumulate, and how they impact health and development. I feel that it is my personal mission to educate and empower as many people as possible as to how to live well and make informed decisions about their environment.
When a child is born, do they already have a toxic load, or is it something that is developed – or both?
Sadly, chemicals like pesticides, plastics, cosmetic ingredients, fragrances, heavy metals, flame retardants and other industrial chemicals are regularly detected in the blood and tissue of freshly birthed babies, young children, and people of all ages. There is plenty of evidence to show that we are birthing pre-polluted babies: we certainly do not start with a clear slate.
Over a decade ago now, the Environmental Working Groups report: Body Burden, The Pollution in Newborns was published (2007), where researchers found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in the umbilical cord blood from randomly selected babies in U.S. hospitals. Consumer product ingredients, industrial pollutants, and probably the most disturbing is that a number of industrial chemicals and pesticides found in these babies were banned more than thirty years ago. Chemicals like PCB’s and DDT are persistent pollutants and accumulate in the environment and in our bodies. Many subsequent studies (such as the Canadian Pre-Polluted, 2013; and subsequent European research) has highlighted the significance of this threat.
We simply cannot ignore the impact of our environment and our inevitable chemical burden on reproduction, neurodevelopment, and children’s health. The fact that we have over 200 chemicals coursing through our veins at the time of arrival to this planet is testament to the significance of this problem.
What steps can we take to begin the process of cutting out toxins from our lives?
The empowering message is that we do have full control over what we choose to bring in to our homes, and over what we put into and on our bodies. Whilst it’s easy to accept status quo and just go along with what previous generations have done without questioning it, it is far more courageous to audit and assess some of those things that may have hardened into habits – such as cooking in Teflon, applying fragranced products, relying heavily on plastics for convenience, and heating take away or frozen ready-made meals in the microwave whilst still in their plastic containers.
Sadly, it is a function of modern living, that we are exposed to a myriad of environmental threats daily. Some we have little control over (think now banned but long-lived, persistent pollutants like DDT, Dioxins, and PCB’s) – but many we do have control over. A couple of day-to-day chemicals that are important to minimize exposures to include:
Phthalates – these hormone disrupting ‘plasticiser’ chemicals are found in plastics in the kitchen, vinyl flooring and shower curtains, in nail polish, and in scented personal care products. Diethyl and Dibutyl phthalates are particularly used as ‘fragrance-fixers’ in perfumes, smelly candles, air fresheners, and fragranced body creams. Phthalates are thyroid disruptors linked to problems of the reproductive system, including decreased sperm motility and concentration in men and genital abnormalities in baby boys. They mimic oestrogen in the body and can contribute to female reproductive problems commonly seen in clinic such as pre-menstrual symptoms, endometriosis, PCOS, and even breast cancer. More recently phthalates have been linked to asthma and allergies. They are a great one to start with avoiding!
Triclosan – is a hospital grade antimicrobial that somehow made its way into our homes and personal care products as a result of germ-phobia. Triclosan is another hormone disrupting chemical that can be found in some lines of toothpaste, most liquid hand soaps and detergents, conventional hand sanitizing gels, some face washes, sports socks, and it’s even embedded into some plastic chopping boards! Triclosan – besides interfering with the microbiota within our gastrointestinal system – has also been shown to disrupt thyroid hormones, and when it is washed down the sink, is extremely toxic to marine life.
What are the most important things to look for when reducing the amount of toxins in our diets?
There is so much that we can all do on a daily basis to reduce our exposures and also to maximize our resilience. Storing your food in glass containers, using steel water bottles (to replace plastics), becoming a label detective to ensure your daily beauty routine isn’t exposing you to an unnecessary cocktail of chemicals (watch out for parabens, phthalates, toluene and sodium laurel sulphates). Avoiding processed foods, avoiding imported foods, eating low mercury fish, and choosing organic produce, pasture raised meats and eggs and meats are also important considerations. Running your tap through a home filter to remove impurities and pollutants can also add up over a lifetime to make a significant difference to one’s body burden.
How important is it to be mindful of toxins in the foods we consume?
I’ll focus on pesticides here. The use of synthetic pesticides in industrial agriculture is prolific in Australia and around the world. Exposure to pesticides via the food chain is inevitable, unless you are buying strictly certified organic. Residues of some pesticides that have been banned for decades can still be found in our livestock, animal produce, and water – which is a scary thought.
There is a considerable body of evidence that links pesticides to a range of cancers (and in particular childhood cancers), and our current day Organophosphate pesticides have been classified in the literature as neurodevelopmental toxins, which means they may injure the developing brain when exposures occur at vulnerable windows of development. The relationship between high pesticide exposure during development (in utero and infancy) and neurodevelopmental disorders (including Autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, dyslexia, and other cognitive impairments) have been explored in the literature over the last decade with some sobering outcomes.
The good news is that organophosphate pesticides are eliminated from the body relatively quickly – so making changes in yours and your families diet can have a quick impact. There are measures we can take with our daily choices to limit our exposures. Veering away from imported products and produce, and sticking to in-season, local produce is a good start. Referring to the “dirty dozen & clean fifteen” list published annually by the Environmental Working Group is very helpful to prioritise your organic dollar – particularly choosing from the Clean Fifteen list if you are on a tight budget. And of course our book is a practical, up to date resource that is receiving some outstanding feedback already.
From all the “heroes” you speak to in your book One Bite at a Time, what were some of the most alarming or interesting facts you learnt??
It was just so encouraging to know that these heroes – whether they be Kombucha brewers, people setting up urban community farms, Guerilla gardening rebels, or small-scale Certified Organic farmers are out there going against the tide of mainstream large scale agribusiness. These heroes are spurred on by a social responsibility – fuelled by their vision of a better world for future generations. We wanted to interview them and include their inspiring messages, highlighting their courage for going against dominant philosophy. One couple of farmers in particular, Sally Hookey and Peter Heiniger, who have a certified organic orchard in the hinterland of the Gold Coast, left us with a magnificent quote we included in our book:
“Here’s why our food system is broken: a farmer can spray chemicals to kill bugs, then spray more chemicals to kill weeds, then add chemicals to the soil and they don’t require any labels on their produce. This ain’t normal. But if a farmer wants to grow food without chemicals, they have to pay a whole bunch of money and fill out loads of paperwork to prove they don’t use chemicals. This is a system that doesn’t make sense. It’s a broken system.”
Please talk to me a little about your own experience with reducing toxins in your daily life.
My process with this began as a new mother, feeling a tiger-ess-like protective wave dawn over me when I realised that the only thing standing between my children and chemicals was my own awareness and action. The overbearing ‘consumerism’ attached to motherhood was enticing, but there were so many aspects of it that didn’t make sense to me – like why I was given scented bubble bath and shampoo in my new-baby-hospital bag when I was allowed to take my newborn home, and why there was alcohol, parabens and fragrance in the common baby wipes that are sold everywhere. I kept hearing a whisper from inside encouraging me to keep it simple.
Obviously we can’t avoid exposure to all toxins, but how best do we build resiliency and prepare our bodies for that exposure?
Whilst it makes sense to have a precautionary approach to the use of chemicals and to do what we can to reduce our exposures, there is also much that can be done to maximise resilience against environmental chemicals we are exposed to daily. First and foremost we must protect our most vulnerable developing infants, by considering a pre-conception program to maximize health and minimize toxic burden on the parents to be.
Secondly, we can work to keep home cleaning and personal care routines as simple as possible, with minimal reliance on synthetic ingredients.
Thirdly, a simple wholefoods diet, abundant with plant based phytochemicals: hard to pronounce ingredients like sulphorophane (from the Broccoli family of vegetables), catechins (from green tea), polyphenols (from colourful berries and cinnamon), curcumerone (from turmeric) and bioflavonoids (from buckwheat, berries and citrus) is another sure way to protect your cells from the onslaught of environmental exposures that are inevitable. The research has also shown that having a mineral rich diet – achieving adequacy iron, zinc, selenium, and calcium from our diet can have a beneficial impact on our defence mechanisms against certain exposures such as heavy metals – lead, mercury and aluminum.
Finally, supporting your daily detoxification processes by keeping well hydrated, including lots of herbal teas and in-season vegetables to keep the channels of elimination open is a clever way to ensure good handling of toxins.
How important is it to support local business and industry that promote ethical, low or no-tox products/lifestyles.
There is so much power in community. I strongly believe that supporting the small scale local business that are promoting ethical, sustainably made products, who have both health and the health of the planet front of mind is a gift to our own bodies and the health of our most precious resource – our future generations. Literally every time we purchase something – whether it be cot sheets, a muslin wrap, a meal, furniture, or even a personal care product or gift – we are voting for the kind of world we want. That is both fabulous and daunting. Because as individuals we may not be able to save the world, but as a collective our power is combined and we have a very good chance of doing just that- and of leaving our world a better place for generations to come.