next to a (now destroyed) nuclear power plant
Photo credit: wikipedia commons
I have been reading a lot of nutrition/diet books lately, and I keep reading about toxic this and toxic that... the poor adjective has been used a whole lot. Oh yeah, that buzzword again, yawn.... hmmn... who's been kicked off Dancing with the Stars this week... But the fact that the word has become a popular marketing buzz-toy doesn't mean that there aren't toxins out there.
Isn't 'toxic' simply the latest buzzword?
A lot of the buzz is based on biology. There are some facts hidden amidst the fuss.
It is a fact that there are toxins out there, and it is a fact that your body deals with them, or tries to. And the body uses fat cells in the process.
Fat is useful
Fat, also known as adipose tissue, isn't just sitting there on your hips. (Or jiggling there on your hips. Whatever.) "Adipose tissue is a complex, essential, and highly active metabolic and endocrine organ."
Unlike some of us (*cough* points at self *cough*), the body doesn't go out and rent a storage area to put extra 'stuff' and then forget about it.
The body makes use of these fat cells. Fat cells are storage units that maintain triglyceride and free fatty acid levels. In addition, there are several different hormones created in fat cells. "Adipose tissue is also a major site for metabolism of sex steroids and glucocorticoids." Indeed, some of the metabolic processes that go on in adipose tissue aren't always beneficial in the long run. "...adipose tissue is a major endocrine organ that secretes numerous polypeptide hormones and cytokines that are proinflammatory and proatherogenic."
Fat cells are also the preferential storage area for toxins that your body can't get rid of in some other way.
When your body meets a toxin... Not a sequel to When Harry Met
In general, you're pretty good when it comes to dealing with toxins. How your body deals with a toxin depends in part on how the toxin comes into the system. Sometimes the body's responses, which originated during a time when there was no industrial waste, aren't helpful. For example, when cigarette smoke comes into the lungs, the body reacts by transforming a major component of the smoke into a carcinogenic compound. (1)
Alternatively, if the body receives the toxin known as alcohol (grain alcohol) in relatively small doses, the liver processes it and the human frequently enjoys the process of being intoxicated.
Or, your body could store the toxin. "Most of us have been exposed to organochlorines found in pesticides, dyes, solvents, etc... and we contain residues in our adipose tissue, where they are preferentially stored."
Yet another reason to eat organic and not live next to a chemical factory
I don't mean to scare anybody, but you should be aware that if you've got toxins in your system, they can affect you adversely. "Because most of environmental chemicals, called estrogen disruptors or xenoestrogens, are toxic and estrogen/antiandrogen active, they can disregulate hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis potentially inducing reproductive disorders."
Similarly, if you're having problems with low thyroid levels, the toxins in your environment might be one of the causes. "Even after adjustment for weight loss, the related increase in organochlorine concentration has been correlated with decreases in triidothyronine (T3) concentration and resting metabolic rate."
Why all the talk about detox diets?
Researching all this stuff not only increased my paranoia level, it made me appreciate why people are so eager to buy books and products that purport to help rid your body of toxins. I plan to write another post on detox diets, but I had to write this one first, because there was too much material to fit into one post.
Three things I should mention here:
- All the kerfuffle about toxins in your system has some depressing basis in reality.
- Because this is such a popular subject, there are tons of unscrupulous people trying to sell you something to deal with toxins. I think it's safe to say that there might also some scrupulous people trying to sell you something to help with the problem.
- If you're obese, you have more toxins stored in your body. "... the obese tend to have increased organochlorine concentrations compared to lean individuals. During body weight loss, a decrease in fat mass results in lipid mobilization, and organochlorine concentrations increase both in plasma and remaining adipose tissue."
The preferential storage place is adipose tissue, the fat cells. If you are losing weight, and hopefully are doing weight lifting and aerobic exercise, then you're losing fat, which does mean that there are toxins circulating in your system. Even people who advocate Calorie Restriction do not recommend adopting the CR lifestyle too abruptly, for fear that losing a whole lot of weight quickly (and thus releasing a large the amount of toxins into the system all at once) might overwhelm the body:
"Our foods contain various chemicals (e.g. pesticides) that are fat soluble.... losing fat (weight) too quickly will flush lots of toxic chemicals into our bloodstream -- too fast for our bodies to effectively eliminate."
Toxins are bad for you, baby
I don't want to sound like I'm saying toxins are bad only if you're obese. They're bad, period. Remember the post that Crabby did about breast milk being used in restaurant meals? According to the World Health Organization (which supports breastfeeding), "Contamination of
human milk is widespread and due to decades of inadequately controlled pollution by toxicants, persistent pesticides or chemical solvents. These chemicals tend to degrade slowly in the environment, to bioaccumulate in the food chain and to have long half-lives in humans."
Well, now that you're feeling all paranoid...
Cheerful stuff, eh? I'm not trying to increase the general level of paranoia in the world; some of this stuff I can't control, so I refuse to stress over it. I will focus on the areas where I can control the amount of toxins.
If you're looking for ways to reduce the amount of toxins in your environment, iVillage has a quiz that claims to test how healthy your home is. They also have an interactive little video quiz that focuses on different areas of your home and ways to reduce pesticide levels. High-level stuff, but it's a starting place.
(1) Vander, Sherman, Luciano Human Physiology 6th edition, p. 740