- Are Environmental Toxins Shortening your Lifespan? - May 16, 2022
Ever since I saw brown water coming out of my tap, I’ve started to wonder if the location you live in can influence your longevity due to the environment your surrounded by? As an environmental epigeneticist working in marine conservation, I’ve studied epigenetic changes in sharks and dolphins due to toxins in the environment and have seen firsthand how sensitive marine life is to these chemical stressors and how their lifespans get affected.
Where do these toxins come from? – usually humans.
So, if we’re the ones leaking these toxins into the environment, aren’t we at risk too?
The short answer is absolutely.
Now the question is, what exactly happens inside the body when we’re exposed to toxins that makes them so bad?
How toxins affect aging
There are several ways toxins can have undesirable effects on our bodies which can affect lifespan and healthspan. Probably one of the most important reasons aging is affected is because toxins cause damage to our DNA.
DNA damage has been proposed to be one of the unifying causes of the aging phenotype. Many commonly used pesticides, phthalates, improperly detoxified estrogens, and products containing benzene damage DNA and are widely prevalent in our environments.
Another effect of toxins includes modifications to gene expression. Sometimes these expression changes are the body’s natural defense to what it encounters in the environment. But sometimes these gene expression changes that were designed as a defensive mechanism, lead to undesirable health issues.
Where are the toxins coming from?
Everyday we are guaranteed to run into toxins, it’s pretty much a part of life these days. But there are a few areas where you may be exposed to toxins more than others.
Some of the common areas include:
Toxins in water
From the water you drink to the water you swim in… you need to be aware of what your exposed to when you encounter water.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has recently shared some alarming data regarding the drinking water standards. There were 324 contaminants found in local drinking water across the US, that were reported to be at “legal” levels by state regulations. Turned out, these “legal” levels were also considered to pose health risks according to authoritative scientific studies.
Even if you’re not consuming water, toxins can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled while swimming (at a lesser extent to ingesting them of course). For example, I live in Florida and every year (just about) there is a “red tide” on the west coast of Florida. Sometimes, it crepes over to the east side of Florida. Red tide is caused by an explosion in the red algae population that just so happens to product a toxin called brevetoxin. This toxin was found to cause DNA damage in the lungs of mice.
Toxins in food
By now, you’ve probably become aware that you should limit processed foods as they often contain many artificial chemicals and toxins that are linked to chronic diseases. But what about healthy foods?
Turns out you have to be cautious with some of those things as well.
For example, fish is a great source of protein and healthy fats, and has been touted as a preferred meat to consume in comparison to red meat. However, some sources of fish have been found to harbor high amounts of mercury. The especially dangerous ones include fish that are long lived and higher up on the food chain including swordfish and tuna.
Luckily, one of the healthiest fish you can consume due to it’s high omega 3 content, Salmon, has about 10X less mercury than these other fishes mentioned above according to measurements done by the FDA. However, it still harbors anywhere from 0.014ppm to 0.086 ppm of mercury. So, maybe you shouldn’t eat it every single day.
Toxins in air
The world health organization estimates that 99% of the global population breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. For example, gases emitted from cars harbor dangerous toxins. While the movement towards hybrid and electric cars is well on its way, it’s safe to say that gas engines aren’t going extinct anytime soon. When possible, be mindful of air pollution warnings, especially if you live in a big city.
Toxins in skin care products
As we age, we tend to pay more attention to the signs of aging on our skin. So, we spend more time and effort trying to protect and nourish our skin. Anti-aging wrinkle creams, serums and skin care products are very trendy, and some can help your skin look better, but are these products safe?
Turns out, in many cases, skin care products may introduce more toxins to our bodies.
According to the environmental working group, since 2009, 595 cosmetics manufacturers have reported using 88 chemicals in more than 73,000 products, that have been linked to cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. Many skincare products contain ingredients such as xenoestrogens, that can get into the circulation and disrupt your hormones.
So, it is really important to take a good look at the products you apply on your skin, and purify your beauty routine. Literally.
Toxins in your house and yard
We use chemicals in and around our house all the time which can affect our health and longevity. These toxins are found in a lot of common household items and it’s not always easy to just read the label and know if a product is safe.
Cleaning chemicals have vastly enhanced our hygiene over the years, but being cautious and aware of potential dangerous side effects of using them is essential. Perhaps choosing a nontoxic cleaner can help you up your longevity game while keeping the house fresh. The Cleveland clinic has a long list of them that are worth reading and being aware of: Household Chemical Products and Their Health Risk.
Also, limit use of fertilizers and pesticides in the yard. Yes, it’s nice to have a green yard but fertilizers and pesticides are notorious for causing DNA damage which makes them not only harmful to you but to wildlife as well.
What can we do about it?
Unfortunately, being exposed to toxins is a fact of life and we can’t put ourselves in a bubble to protect ourselves. (I mean, we could, but that would be pretty inconvenient).
What we can do, is be mindful of toxins and limit exposure when possible. Here are some suggestions on how to do this:
Detox with food
Since we can’t avoid being exposed to toxins completely, it’s a good idea to help your body cleanse them off. A great way to naturally do this is through the foods you eat. There is starting to be a large collection of studies focused on understanding how different foods influence the detox pathways of our body. For example, cytochrome P450 enzymes or methyltransferases.
Now you’ve probably heard about the trendy detox diets. But, do they actually work? I have seen some questionable detox recipes that I am not sure I would ever like to try, to be honest. Some of these natural home remedies, however, have some solid science behind them. Of course, each person is different, and each person’s body may react differently to different things. So, you’ll have to play around and find what works best for you. Listen to what your body is telling you, rather than what the viral post may claim.
A couple foods to look into for starters:
- Fiber. Fiber from whole foods is great for getting rid of toxins because it can bind to fat-soluble toxins in the gut and support healthy digestion and elimination. There are several different kinds of fiber and each does something different for the body and your gut microbiome. For best results, eat a variety of whole foods: fresh raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and also beans and legumes (if they agree with you).
- Cruciferous vegetables. These delicious veggies are great at modifying gene pathways involved in detoxification. Part of increasing longevity is avoiding terminal illnesses and these greens seem to just do the trick. Good options include: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts.
- Broccoli sprouts. Speaking of cruciferous vegetables detoxification superpowers, how about broccoli sprouts? These amazing superfoods have shown to have up to 100 times the amount of cancer-fighting compounds compared to the mature broccoli. One study with people that were exposed to air pollution, found that those who ate broccoli sprouts had significantly less air pollutant toxins in their body.
- Cilantro. This popular salsa ingredient was shown to offer much more than flavor, with a variety of longevity promoting nutrients, including an ability to chelate heavy metals, such as lead, in the digestive tract.
Avoiding toxins (as much as possible) and eating foods that make us super detox machines are the easiest way to start combating toxins and living longer… but there are some other ways we can do to boost our detox powers including what we call epigenetic modifiers.
Epigenetics is the study of how our behaviors and environment can change the way our genes work. In other words, our lifestyle choices can turn off “bad” genes and activate good and longevity promoting genes.
Some natural foods and herbs have various compounds shown to help regulate the epigenome, and reverse epigenetic alterations that are associated with disease. These are known as epigenetic modifiers. Common examples include:
- Catechins such as EGCG (green tea)
- Curcumin (found in turmeric)
- Sulforaphane (found in high levels in broccoli sprouts).
Interestingly enough, not only these epigenetic modifiers are great for longevity, many of them have also shown to support the body’s natural detoxification pathways.
We’ll cover them in much more details in our next article, including the ones I personally use.