Environmental toxins have always posed a risk to humans, even thousands of years ago. Back then, it was things like molds and other dangerous bacteria and viruses, poisonous berries and other plants, snake venom, or the sting of a jellyfish that had the biggest potential to make people ill or even kill them.
Now, however, those naturally-occurring toxins are the least of our problems. Instead, our modern world is overrun with toxins and toxicants — the proper term for man-made toxins — which are harder to avoid and much more insidious than natural ones ever were.
Some estimates suggest that more than 200,000 man-made chemicals now exist, most of which have only been developed in the past 100 years or so, says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., Medical Director of Vital Plan. And we’re exposed to many of them every day in the air we breathe, the food and drinks we consume, and what has contact with our skin. Here’s just a taste of what’s on that list:
- Pollution from cars and industrial processes include particulate matter, ozone gas, and benzene.
- Indoors, chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are commonly released from household items like carpet, paint, and cleaning solutions.
- In the average American diet, you’ll find pesticide and herbicide residue, BPA or other chemicals from plastics that can leach into food, plus heavy metals and arsenic in water.
- The many personal care products we use, often with the intention of making skin and hair more healthy, can contain endocrine disruptors that have been linked to a variety of cancers.
- Traffic jams, work deadlines, and other pressures easily trigger toxic chronic stress.
- Refined carbohydrates, highly processed sugars and manipulated fats can also be toxic to humans’ otherwise relatively primitive systems, which were designed to run on simple plants, barks, herbs and fresh, clean water.
All of these toxins and toxicants negatively impact health on many different fronts, but one of the most serious is how they accelerate or interfere with aging. In fact, research now shows that environmental toxins play a significant role in what’s called external aging, according to a recent review in the journal Trends in Molecular Medicine. That’s the type of aging that’s driven by external factors, as opposed to the genetic and internal ones we can’t control.
As tempting as it is to want to isolate and target the worst culprits on the toxic list, there’s not necessarily one or even a few that you can vilify over others, says Dr. Rawls. “It’s all of them together — it’s this high level of insidious toxins that has never been here before on earth,” he explains. “Because our ancestors didn’t deal with them, our bodies don’t have the genetic memory or ability to properly tolerate or process all of the toxins that we’re now bombarded with daily.”
But all is not lost: It is possible to minimize toxins’ impact and significantly decelerate aging — and naturally, to boot. Here’s how.
How Cells Age — and How Toxins Interfere
To understand how modern toxins interfere with the aging process, it helps to first know how the body ages normally. “We are a collection of cells, and each cell is specialized to take care of other cells,” Dr. Rawls explains. “When a critical number of cells, or cells from a key organ like our lungs or heart, get sick or old or die — that’s what aging and illness is in a nutshell.”
That happens naturally over time when mitochondria, cells’ power generators, burn out, which causes cells to die or produce less healthy cells that don’t function properly. It also happens when cells are no longer able to properly communicate and coordinate with their 10 trillion peers, which all come from 200 different groups.
“That cellular coordination is remarkably important,” says Dr. Rawls. “When it doesn’t happen, the body starts breaking down and functions stop working — that’s also illness and aging.”
In many ways, our bodies aren’t that different than a machine, and just like components of a machine, our cells and systems eventually stop working as well. Toxins, however, can cause the aging of cells and breakdown of cellular communication to happen sooner than it would otherwise. “Environmental toxins strangle or suffocate or damage cells, or they disrupt chemical messengers so cells aren’t communicating, and so the body breaks down,” Dr. Rawls says.
For example, just as herbicides and pesticides mess with the chemical messenger channels in weeds and insects, they can also disrupt those in humans (which are surprisingly similar), says Dr. Rawls. Chemicals in plastics and in pesticides, meanwhile, may mimic hormones in the body. Not only does that affect signaling, it can throw your body’s hormonal balance out of whack and potentially contribute to hormonally-active cancers.
Other toxins may act as free radicals, causing inflammation and damage to cell membranes or blood vessels, Dr. Rawls says. That’s the case with many air pollutants from cars and industrial processes. When you breathe them in, they flood your respiratory and cardiovascular systems and can pass into your bloodstream.
These free radical-like toxins can interact with nerve endings, too, which then allow them to disrupt your nervous system. In fact, studies have found a clear link between high levels of airborne toxins in the environment and early death from all causes, but particularly heart disease. Decreased lung function and increased hospital admissions were also shown to be more common among those who live and work in the polluted areas.
Toxins may also directly damage DNA, the blueprint that cells use to make new cells. When that happens, the new, abnormal cells may die off — or they may continue reproducing damaged, diseased, or dysfunctional cells. For example, DNA in skin cells directly absorbs photons from UV light, which then leads to skin wrinkling and increased risk for skin cancer. Research even suggests exposure to certain toxins in pesticides and elsewhere may change DNA in a way that contributes to disease not only for those exposed, but also to their offspring and subsequent generations.
That’s all pretty scary stuff, but the good news is that you aren’t powerless. “The great thing about where we are now, is that we know more about the effects of these toxins than ever before, and we have more choices that let us better avoid or deal with them,” Dr. Rawls says.
How to Detox Naturally
Along with reducing your exposure to the more obvious and well-known toxins — such as steering clear of cigarette and cigar smoke, avoiding household chemicals, and reducing your use of plastic containers — here’s how to best protect yourself against invisible, insidious toxin exposure and equip your body to naturally filter them out and reduce the potential damage.
1. Fill Half Your Plate with Vegetables and/or Fruit
“No matter what the issue is, when it comes to improving health, the answer will almost always include eating more plants,” Dr. Rawls says. But as far as detox goes, there are specific ways veggies can help.
For one, many modern toxins are fat soluble, and, unlike meat, plants generally don’t have a lot of fat in which to store toxins. Many fruits and some veggies also have protective peels that help limit their load, plus you can find many affordable organicoptions.
People who eat a lot of produce also tend to not have excessive amounts of body fat that can store toxins. Cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cabbage in particular also help ensure proper functioning of your liver, which is one of your body’s main detox centers, Dr. Rawls says. Vegetables’ fiber plays a key role, too.
“After your liver processes a toxin to make it water soluble, it’s secreted into bile, where the molecules then need something to bind to in order to exit your body,” Dr. Rawls says. “Vegetable fiber does that better than any other type.”
Indeed, fiber intake was closely tied to what researchers called “successful aging,” according to a study in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences. The researchers found that people who ate a lot of fiber were 80% less likely to have hypertension, diabetes, dementia, depression, and a functional disability.
Vegetables also ensure cell membranes are their healthiest, and these membranes are what let nutrients in and help keep toxins out. “All the fat you eat ends up in cell membranes,” Dr. Rawls explains. “If you’re eating mostly saturated fat from meat and fried foods, membranes become stiff like lard.”
Plus, fried food can actually be a toxin all on its own; cooking fat or oil over extremely high heat turns it into free radicals. “So what you’re doing then is lacing cell membranes with damaging free radicals,” he says. One study in the journal British Medical Journal found that post-menopausal women who ate one or more servings of fried food a day had an 8% higher risk of dying during the study period. The risk rose to 13% for those who ordered up fried chicken daily.
A healthy plant-based diet also contributes to a healthy vascular system and good blood flow, which also helps move toxins out of your body, Dr. Rawls adds. Bottom line: “What we eat influences aging down to the cellular level, as well as our ability to flush out toxins.”
2. Try Detoxifying Herbs and Natural Ingredients
“Everyone wants one simple detox product, but most of what’s available cause only a laxative effect,” Dr. Rawls says. “When people get constipated, they build up loads of bad bacteria in their gut, and when they get rid of it, they feel better. But those products are not actually helping remove toxins.”
One that is at the top of his list: Chlorella. A nutrient-rich freshwater green algae, chlorella is rich in chlorophyll, a pigment with antioxidant properties that binds to toxins and helps usher them out of your system.
He also points to herbs that support healthy liver function, which is highly involved in processing toxins so your body can remove them. “Herbs like milk thistle and burdock root, as well as andrographis are at the top of the list because they help protect liver cells,” Dr. Rawls says. Milk thistle, for example, contains a potent antioxidant compound that has been shown beneficial in liver disease, as well as for protecting against liver toxins and reducing liver inflammation, according to a review in Lancet Oncology.
Another herb to consider: Glutathione, an essential antioxidant found in many plants and our own bodies. Glutathione plays a key role in liver function, especially during the first stage of toxin removal — when the liver transforms the toxin from fat soluble to water soluble so it can be excreted, Dr. Rawls says.
Studies suggest glutathione can be beneficial for the liver, with a recent study in BMC Gastroenterology even showing it may help those with non-fatty liver disease. What’s notable here, though, is that along with supporting liver function, glutathione also helps protect cell mitochondria from free radical damage that contributes to aging.
Berberine and other bitter herbs that support healthy digestion also help your body detox and support healthy aging. They work by ensuring proper removal of toxins through stools, plus promote healthy, balanced gut flora. And a healthy balance of gut bugs means a strong immune system — upwards of 70% of our immune system lives in our gut — which helps strengthen your defenses against disease.
3. Get Enough Sleep
Not only does sleep help diffuse stress and its toxic effects, it is essential for your body to rid itself of toxic materials and waste. “Deep, stage-3 sleep is when your body is able to detox most effectively, and when it works the hardest to get rid of toxins,” Dr. Rawls says.
One recent study in the journal Science Advances showed how this works when it comes to the brain and toxic proteins that can build up and that have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers found that deep sleep sets up the ideal environment for your body’s glymphatic system to work optimally. The glymphatic system is your brain’s specialized waste removal system, which uses the flow of cerebrospinal fluid to “cleanse” away toxic junk.
If you struggle with occasional sleeplessness, herbs and other natural ingredients can help here, too. A few to consider:
- Montmorency tart cherries: They’re a natural source of melatonin, a sleep-signalling hormone. Levels are low, but you don’t need much to initiate sleep, says Dr. Rawls, and in fact the high levels (>3mg) found in many supplements may actually disrupt your normal sleep-wake cycle.
- Magnesium: More than half of Americans don’t get enough of this essential mineral, a shortfall that’s been linked with poor sleep quality. Plus, magnesium helps promote calm and relaxation, which naturally lends to better sleep. Look for it in magnesium glycinate form, which is more easily absorbed by the body.
- Ashwagandha and l-theanine: If stress is what’s keeping you up, consider these herbs. They can help balance the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline so you’re better able to manage stress in the face of it.
- Bacopa, passionflower, and motherwort: Especially when taken together, these three herbs help promote a calm mind and support normal, healthy sleep.
4. Drink Plenty of (Filtered) Water
Filtering your tap H2O is a no-brainer for limiting exposure to all sorts of metals and toxic substances. For example, as many as 56 million Americans in 25 states may be drinking tap water with unsafe arsenic levels, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council.
But along with arsenic, a known carcinogen, tap water can contain trace amounts of medications, heavy metals, and other toxins that can mess with natural hormones. Bottled water, however, isn’t the answer since it may not be filtered, plus has the added risk of potentially containing BPA, a hormone-disrupting toxin in many plastics, according to a paper in the The British Medical Journal.
Just as important as filtering your water is to be sure you’re drinking enough. Adequate hydration helps flush toxins out of your system through urine, but also by keeping your GI function regular, which is another exit point for toxins, Dr. Rawls says. Check out your urine for clues as to whether you’re sipping sufficiently — it should be light yellow, like lemonade.
5. Cut Way Back on Sugar
“Excess sugar is toxic in a variety of ways,” Dr. Rawls says. First, excessive sugar promotes the growth of abnormal or pathogenic bacteria in the gut. Those gut microbes can actually create toxins that stimulate and agitate the brain, which then affects sleep and hormone levels and sets off a domino effect that impacts health and longevity at every stage, Dr. Rawls says.
Excess glucose in particular accelerates aging since it sticks to proteins in the body, which “gums up the works,” Dr. Rawls says. “Proteins make all functions in cells possible, and when you load the body with glucose, it sticks to the proteins and causes them to collapse.” One of the most visible signs of too much sugar, for example, is skin wrinkling. That’s because collagen — skin’s main support structure — is primarily made of protein.
But that’s not the only way too much sugar can be toxic. The more you eat, the more your body will become resistant to the insulin that moves glucose out of your blood and to cells that use it for energy. That can lead to elevated levels of both insulin and blood glucose, which have been linked in studies to cellular aging, including in the brain. Meanwhile, other research has found that those who eat a lot of sugar are at higher risk of dying of cardiovascular diseases, reports a study in JAMA Internal Medicine.
6. Stay Physically Active
“One of the best ways to get rid of heavy metals in your body is through exercise,” Dr. Rawls says. “It increases blood flow and promotes sweat, which is a key way your body detoxes; I think of it as blowing out your pipes.” In fact, research suggests that people exposed to higher levels of metals may sweat out just as many toxins as they release through urine, according to a review in the Journal of Environmental Public Health.
Exercise is also the most effective way to manage stress and help encourage quality sleep. “That’s important, because stress and lack of sleep disrupt hormones, which then interferes with your ability to get rid of toxins,” Dr. Rawls says. So try to be moderately active every day, by walking frequently throughout the day or using a bike to commute. And if you can regularly work up a sweat, even better.
7. Turn to Nature’s Air Purifiers
A number of plants are known to be especially effective at scrubbing indoor air of pollutants, reports a paper in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. While all plants will help to some extent, try filling your home with air-purifying all-stars shown to significantly lower indoor levels of VOCs, including areca, lady and bamboo palms, English ivy, Boston ferns, peace lily and Ficus.
Likewise, when you’re outdoors, try to spend as much time as possible in naturally green areas and away from major roads and highways. Research suggests lusher landscapes help mitigate the effects of climate change, including improving air quality and reducing your exposure to airborne toxins. One review found decreased risk of mortality among those subjects who lived in the greenest areas.
What’s more, spending time amidst nature also significantly reduces stress, according to a study in Behavioral Sciences. If you can’t escape the city, at least seek out parks for a daily dose of nature. Research suggests urban parks and green spaces improve air quality and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, mortality, and diabetes, according to a review chapter in the book Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change Adaptation in Urban Areas.
8. Be Sun Safe
While most toxins do their dirty work inside your body and in ways you can’t see, ultraviolet rays from the sun age you prematurely in very visible ways: Over time, they cause skin to wrinkle, make it less elastic, and trigger hyperpigmentation (brown spots) plus rough, dry skin texture.
Researchers who studied 183 sets of twins proved just how aging sun damage can be. The twins who had had more sun exposure and a history of outdoor activities and lack of sunscreen all looked significantly older compared to their more sun-safe sibling. Ultraviolet rays are also known carcinogens that can increase your risk of skin cancer, Dr. Rawls says.
You needn’t become a vampire who ventures out only at night, however. To protect yourself, simply practice sun-safe behaviors:
- Avoid being outdoors in the sun when rays are strongest, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
- Wear protective clothing, a wide-brim hat, and sunglasses.
- Apply a non-toxic sunscreen to exposed skin. Look for those that list zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as active ingredients, which are inert minerals that block rays, providing natural SPF.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to completely avoid the influx of modern-day toxins and their aging effects. But with these tips, you can certainly lessen your exposure and mitigate their negative effects now and years down the road as you enter and enjoy your golden years.