Should You Detox to Age Gracefully?

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Before embarking on a detoxification journey, one must have a reason. What drives us to define, analyze, and minimize our toxin exposure? What is so concerning that we would change our lifestyles and undergo intensive regimens? To oversimplify it, we want to be healthy. And for most adults, we want to be healthy as we age.

Aging Gracefully and in Good Health

People have known that certain elements and substances are toxic since the dawn of time, but the interesting thing is that it hasn’t always stopped us from continuing to use them. Mad hatters and their mercury, ancient Romans and their lead finery, and now modern Western culture with its cheap paint, questionable dental treatments, and toxic air – for whatever reason, we continue to use the very items that we know to be poison. Case in point: continued tobacco use in spite of that ubiquitous Surgeon General’s Warning.

Are we simply accustomed to feeling ill?

The prospect of aging is met with a general assumption of waning health. The narrative says our knees should ache, memory and concentration should wane, and we should creak and groan getting out of bed in the morning. But on the flip side of that, we see seemingly one-off situations where people turn the tides and get “in the best shape of their lives” after 50.

While our body systems do change over time, age is not a monster chasing us down to make us miserable. It’s a process, and one that we can work with. The question to ask is not whether you are getting old, but whether you are sick and tired of being sick and tired – and whether a good detox strategy will make the difference.

Toxins and Age-Related Disease

There are two main kinds of reactions to toxins: acute and cumulative. When heavy amounts of a given toxin directly affect you all at once, such as spilling a pesticide onto your skin, you’ll likely have immediate (acute) effects. But when it’s constantly presented to your body in low levels, such as residue on your produce, the effects will hardly be noticed. In fact, for many of us, we may never realize what’s going on unless we’re looking for it.

With chronic and age-related illnesses of all sorts increasing in prevalence, it’s time we start looking for causes. Unless we take responsibility and take action to change our patterns of poor health, chronic illness will continue to be a pervasive and devastating problem and longevity will be something to dread rather than celebrate.

Disorders of Mobility

To keep us from getting ill and capable of chronic inflammatory conditions, the balance of a functioning immune system is invaluable. Unfortunately, toxins can throw that balance off all too easily. Although we are ready to accept mobility limitations as a natural course of aging, there are many factors contributing to the inflammatory illness that limits mobility and increases pain. Exposure to toxins plays a heavy role, and one that is largely preventable.

Arthritis

Decreasing mobility is a major concern that comes with aging, almost as part and parcel of getting older. Indeed, decreasing collagen levels with age can contribute to an increase in certain types of arthritic disease, or one may be genetically predisposed to a type of arthritis. In some cases, though, we can see the connection between arthritis and toxins play out clearly with autoimmune disorders triggered in occupations that expose workers to high toxin levels. Silica dust, for example, is strongly connected with autoimmune problems like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, while solvents and pesticide exposure is linked to their own conditions. (1) If you’ve worked around toxins or have otherwise been heavily exposed, your risks of autoimmune presentations of arthritis may increase.

Inflammation

More and more, experts are recognizing inflammatory illness as connected to toxin exposure. (2) There are, of course, genetic tendencies for many illnesses, but it’s the epigenetic factors we’re considering with strategic detoxification.

The principle of epigenetics is that our genetic tendencies can be modified by external exposures and factors. So while you may have some predisposition to inflammatory disease, like fibromyalgia, you may also have some control over whether that predisposition is expressed sooner, later, or not at all.

Painful inflammation can slow you down in old age, but it doesn’t have to. Help keep your body functioning at optimal levels by supporting its detox systems, flushing away the toxins that would hold you back.

Disorders of Mental Health and Clarity

Each system of the body is closely intertwined with the others, but the nervous, immune, and endocrine (hormonal) systems are especially linked – in function as well as in effects from toxic metals and chemicals. In addition to classification as immunotoxins, heavy metals are neurotoxins, and accumulation can lead to disruptions in mental health.

Depression and anxiety

The aging process affects mind and body, and can sometimes puts a damper on spirit as well. Pain and illness can lead to depression, though other factors may contribute even if the body seems to be in great health. Post-menopausal women are especially prone to depression thanks to a dramatic shift in hormone levels.

Continued movement and good health are necessary to keep the mind well and spirits high, and supportive detoxification may be part of that effort. In a survey of nearly 2,000 participants, exposures to lead even within the levels deemed “safe” were associated with higher instances of depression and mental health concerns. (3)

The older we get, the more toxins we accumulate, so that even the smallest amounts have meaning. A life of longevity requires attention to exposure and a lifestyle of detoxification.

Cognitive function

Another example of the problems with a slow and steady toxic exposure is found in a 2011 review on the cumulative exposure to lead. Elderly men with lead content in their blood were found to have lower cognitive function and memory ability, either from childhood exposure or from slow and steady exposures over time. (4)

Metals aren’t the only risk, by any means. In an extensive study published in the Annals of Agri Bio Research in 2012, the effects of a long term buildup of pesticide exposure were listed as follows:

“…impaired memory and concentration, disorientation, severe depression, irritability, confusion, headache, speech difficulties, delayed reaction times, nightmares, sleepwalking, and drowsiness or insomnia.” (5)

Alzheimer’s disease

A leading cause of death and frightening proposition – the slow loss of memory and brain function – Alzheimer’s is a force to be reckoned with. And, yet again, while we often think of it as genetic, Alzheimer’s is another example of an illness triggered by environmental factors. (6)

Chemicals are the main concern with Alzheimer’s disease, with a very recent study depicting the threat of “inhalation Alzheimer’s.” (7) You won’t catch these illnesses like a virus spreading from a sneeze, but careless contact with the herbicides, pesticides, processing chemicals and other environmental pollutants build up in our bodies and brains over time, cutting our golden years painfully short.

The takeaway here is quite simple – even when we think we’re avoiding strong toxin exposure levels, even the smallest amounts add up over time.

Systemic Disorders

At risk of a generalized “miscellaneous” category, we can’t ignore that some pollutants and toxins simply build up and contribute to system-wide disorders. Hormones are especially at risk, and faulty hormones can dictate endless trouble as we age.

Diabetes

Primarily an endocrine disorder, just under 10% of America’s population is currently diagnosed with diabetes. Because hormone levels can be affected by certain toxins, some researchers believe arsenic could contribute to the onset of type II diabetes. In 2002, the association was documented in the journal Toxicology Letters:

In Sweden, case-control analyses of death records of copper smelters and glass workers revealed a trend of increasing diabetes mellitus with increasing arsenic exposure from inhalation. In Bangladesh, prevalence of diabetes mellitus among arsenic-exposed subjects with keratosis was about five times higher than unexposed subjects. (8)

This seemed to be verified five years later when individuals living next to hazardous waste sites were found to be hospitalized for diabetic related complications five times more than those living elsewhere. (9)

Obesity

Beyond the natural softening and shifting that our bodies tend to exhibit as the years pile on, obesity is a problem unto itself. If you’re younger and obese, your chances of longevity and health into old age begin to shrink. If you are aging and finding yourself struggling with obesity, your risks of illness increase.

Emphasis on gut health and the microbiome are coming sharply into focus as of late, and obesity is directly correlated. (10) Not only that, but toxin exposures are hypothesized to contribute to gut health and obesity, as well. (11)

Eating the right foods doesn’t mean dieting or attempting to lose weight; it means eating to support healthy gut flora and a functioning detoxification pathway. Exercise is not simply to improve size and shape; it’s to keep the circulatory system moving and flushing away toxins and disease.

Cancer

Of course the predominant plague of our era is that of cancer, which many experts believe is not only more prevalent now than ever before but may be entirely new to recent generations.  This isn’t difficult to believe, as a 2008 study notes only 5-10% of cancers are attributable to genetic conditions, while the rest are preventable through lifestyle changes. (12) Tobacco use, diet, stress, and pollutants are all named as contributors to cases of cancer.

More and more of our era’s major health concerns are connected with toxin exposure, and we are only scratching the surface. If I asked you whether you would make a change in your life if you knew it would prevent cancer from growing, how would you answer? If you could manage your weight, improve your memory, protect your joints from painful inflammation – would you?

Now, if you knew it meant eliminating toxins and changing your lifestyle, would it change your answer? The reality is that we all have that choice – whether to change the way we live to minimize our risk of cancer and other diseases. Unfortunately, it takes a shift in habits to make an impact on our toxin exposure and a concerted effort to create a lifestyle of detoxification support. We have to be willing to do the work if we want to see the results.

Is Your Age-Related Illness Actually Toxin-Related?

It’s important to note here that we cannot take any one factor and call it proof. Simply having an illness does not necessarily indicate that the illness was caused by toxin exposure or accumulation. You have to consider the whole picture before moving on to toxin elimination strategies.

However, we cannot dismiss the role that toxins play in our health, particularly during the aging process. If you believe you have an illness related to toxin accumulation, first check in on your risk factors. What kind of toxin might cause this health concern? Where are the most common sources of exposure? What is your relationship with these factors?

If you have a combination of high risks for exposure and accumulation as well as an illness related to that substance, you should begin working to eliminate that exposure as quickly and fully as possible. For heavy metals, acute exposure, and more severe types of exposure, find a healthcare professional who can proceed with testing and treatment.

When in doubt, seek the guidance of a professional. Never attempt more dramatic detoxification measures without the oversight of someone who is experienced and understands how to proceed.

If your concerns are simply lifestyle related, you can begin to work on the necessary diet, lifestyle, and supplement changes that can help your body get rid of the excess and overcome the exposure that remains. For supporting the body’s detoxification patterns with the goal of longevity and a healthy aging process, some basic detox habits can make a real and lasting difference.

General Detox Habits

As we begin to detox our lives and our bodies, it’s important to remember that prevention is the best medicine. The best rule of thumb to create a lifestyle of minimal exposure is to stick as closely to nature as possible. The rule that your great grandparents should be able to recognize a product as food stands. Incidentally, their generation set the bar for longevity.

Minimizing exposure to plastics, keeping indoor air clean, and buying organic are all simple but effective steps you can take to limit your family’s exposure to new and unproven substances.

The best part of all of this is that your body is likely working relatively efficiently to detoxify environmental exposures already. Your charge is simply to encourage those processes and consciously keep them moving. These basic lifestyle habits are a starting point for each of the more intensive actions below and should be considered a given for anyone seeking to reduce toxin exposure and accumulation.

Minimize Exposure. Prevention will always be your first line of both offense and defense. Environmental toxins are found in household cleaners, building materials, furniture and carpet, plastics, and poorly-sourced foods.

Drink Plenty of (Good) Water. We are mostly made of water. Staying fully hydrated keeps each body system functioning at their peak, right down to a cellular level. Of course, if your water source could be contaminated with chemicals or metals (don’t forget old metal pipes or untested well water), another source of water is preferable.

Sweat! Sauna use is easily implemented and has been found to improve the symptoms that accumulate after constant toxin exposure. (13) And don’t underestimate the power of exercise. Not only does it get you sweating, but moving your body keeps circulatory and respiratory systems functioning, which will help your body move toxins out as well. If you want to stay mobile, you’ve got to be mobile.

Get Adjusted. Let your chiropractor know that you are focusing on healthy aging and supporting your body’s detoxification pathways. They will be able to support you in your efforts.

The Basic Daily Detox

These steps can be considered as part of a normal lifestyle, in a situation that indicates some more attention on detoxification. Or, they can be incorporated as part of a focused, temporary detox regimen. If you are working with a professional, be sure to discuss these options with them. It’s always important for your care providers to know what you are doing, taking, or plan to take.

The premise is simple: work with and support your body’s normal detoxification pathways.

Liver & Kidney. Often considered your core detox centers, these hardworking organs have earned their reputation. While much of the body does some amount of work to eliminate toxins, the liver actually filters nearly all of the blood, scouring each cell to find what doesn’t belong. The kidneys do their own share of filtering and eliminating, as well. Action Step: The herb milk thistle has a long history of use for liver support. (14) Dandelion root is a diuretic that is used to support both liver and kidney function. (15)

Skin. The skin is our barrier for external toxins and houses sweat glands that help eliminate internal toxins. Focus on skin support by choosing skincare products that are free of toxic chemicals that will build in the body over time. Don’t clog pores with heavy, prolonged use of make-up or thick cosmetics. Action Step: Employ the use of saunas, and consider adding dry brushing to your routine to stimulate nerve endings and slough off dead cells.

Lungs. Inhalation carries environmental toxins to the tender mucous membranes in the nose, mouth, and lungs. A healthy respiratory system can move these toxins to the blood to be eliminated in the liver much more efficiently. Action Step: Improve lung strength with regular exercise, and do your best to get fresh air and minimize inhaled fumes and “stale” indoor air.

Gut. While we know to eat plenty of varied nutrients to keep the body healthy, the gut itself is often overlooked as the mechanism by which those nutrients actually begin to help the body. Action Step: Work to balance your intake of essential fatty acids, away from inflammatory omega-6 (red and processed meat, white and refined carbs) and toward anti-inflammatory omega-3s (nuts and seeds, some fish). (16) Be careful with sources of fish – the mercury isn’t worth it!

Whole Body Repair. Sleep is always overlooked in a to-do list. It’s the one thing that requires less “doing” but executes more – maybe even the most – healing. Without facilitating regular, quality sleep, the body will lack vital healing processes. Action Step: Begin to establish bedtime routines that encourage healthy sleep patterns; prioritize rest and avoid overworking yourself.

Takeaway: Foods that Support a Detox Lifestyle

In keeping with the plan to support the body’s detoxification pathways and facilitate your body’s efforts to age gracefully and good health, a good diet should be viewed as the cornerstone. These foods may or may not be part of a specific detox regimen, but we know that they support the body’s natural detox patterns. Remember that going certified organic is important in order to avoid added exposure from residual levels of pesticides herbicides.

Enjoy these foods in abundance as you nourish your body throughout the days that build into years. Use them to lay a foundation for health in all stages and a life of longevity and wellness.

  • Coconut oil
  • ACV
  • Garlic
  • Leafy Greens
  • Cruciferous Vegetables
  • Berries
  • Citrus
  • Apples
  • Turmeric
  • Green tea
  • Bioactive whey protein
  • Milk thistle
  • Dandelion
  • Cilantro
  • Focus on: high fiber (e.g., berries), sulfur (e.g., cruciferous), prebiotic (e.g., garlic), and probiotic foods (e.g. lactofermented foods and drinks, avoiding processed foods that damage gut health)

If you’re looking for more on general, advanced, and heavy metal detoxification strategies, check out my e-Book Real Detox.  For more on healthy aging, be sure to check out the upcoming Longevity and Anti-Aging Project on Health Talks Online, hosted by my good friends and colleagues from the Centre for Epigenetic Expression, where I am featured as a speaker on this topic on June 12, 2016.

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Dr. B.J. Hardick

About Dr. B.J. Hardick

Raised in a holistic family, Dr. B.J. Hardick is an organic food fanatic, green living aficionado, and has spent the majority of his life working in natural health care. In 2009, he wrote his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans, which has now been used professionally in over 500 health clinics. Dr. Hardick regularly blogs healthy recipes and holistic health articles on his own website, DrHardick.com, and speaks to numerous professional and public audiences every year. In his spare time, he invests his keen interest in sustainable living into urban development in his hometown of London, Ontario. Learn More