If you listen to my show with any frequency, you know there is a general consensus that environmental toxins are a factor in any number of illnesses, disorders, and general poor-health issues that we deal with.
Usually we agree to this fact but don’t always understand exactly what those toxins are, where they are found, and what we should do about them.
Fortunately for us all, environmental toxins expert and holistic health counselor Lara Adler ([4:00]) has a lot of answers for us. While the subject can amount to a lot of doom-and-gloom, causing people to plug up their ears, I appreciate that Lara takes a positive approach, looking at what you can do to reduce your exposure and improve your health.
I was curious about what inspired Lara to focus on environmental toxins in her practice. ([4:54]) She shared that as a child she was always interested in health and wellness and became a vegan early on. Being an intelligent child, she researched how to approach her plant-based diet in the healthiest way that would ensure she was properly nourished.
After a career in corporate sales, she decided to pursue her original love and stumbled into the arena of holistic health counseling six years ago. “I realized I could foster my inner health nerd here,” she laughs. Many of the first clients she saw struggled with weight issues, and while some of them saw great results with her, many did not, which baffled Lara.
“I researched the background on why this might be and discovered that toxins contribute to a host of physical conditions,” she recalls. “I was really interested in this because it wasn’t a big conversation yet, so I dedicated myself to untangling this knot.”
Her focus is on figuring out the practical application of reducing environmental toxin exposure and load to find some sort of resolution. Lara now focuses on educating and training other holistic health counselors and health professionals on how to support their own clients.
([8:19]) “I do consider environmental toxins to be one of the biggest missing pieces in the conversation we’re having around health,” she says. It plays a significant role in otherwise-unexplainable weight issues, autism, and learning disabilities, to name a few.
What is an environmental toxin, exactly?
([9:14]) While we usually think of things that are way out there in a global, macro context (oil spills, air pollution), the toxins that most contribute to our individual issues are the ones in our micro-environment – that is, the things we bring into our homes and put on our bodies. These chemicals secretly piggyback on the things we use every day, including personal care products, the packaging our food comes in, and the food itself. Other sources include household cleaners, off-gassing from our furniture, and what we bring in on our shoes. In this way, we can focus on the things we can change: we can’t control air pollution, but we can control what we bring in our homes.
Lara shared that there are currently 80,000-84,000 registered chemicals in commerce, with 1,000-2,000 new chemicals registered every year. While many of these chemicals do benefit us (in the form of medicine and helpful building materials), most do not have any safety testing to monitor their effects on humans, animals, and the environment. This presents a huge challenge as consumers since these chemicals end up inside our bodies.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) routinely tests for a lot of these chemicals and has found more than 200 synthetic chemicals in our bodies (including jet fuel, flame retardant, and traces of substances that have been banned for 30 years). The big spike we’ve seen in recent decades tellingly follows the same historic arc of the inundation of chemicals into the marketplace, notably since the end of WWII.
What do these chemicals do in our bodies?
([15:32]) Among other things, they interfere with metabolism and can lead to insulin resistance. Not surprisingly one of our biggest challenges today is the obesity epidemic. So what role do chemicals play in obesity? ([17:12]) Lara says it’s a perfect storm of three factors: poor diet, lack of exercise, and chemical exposure. With numbers hovering around 35% of the total population medically qualifying as obese, and another 34% clinically overweight, there is more going on here than meets the eye. It’s no longer simply calories in vs. calories out.
Certain chemicals now classify as obesogens.
([20:46]) These are chemicals that directly or indirectly increase obesity through the disruption of metabolic, hormonal, or developmental processes. They alter the way our fat cells develop and can actually promote fat retention. This term, coined by a doctor in 2006, emerged from studies that showed that low-dose chemical exposure contributes to weight gain in experimental animals. We are probably most familiar with obesogens in the form of pharmaceuticals – think of those ubiquitous medication commercials that name weight gain in their laundry list of side effects.
Does our perfume and shampoo make us fat, then?
([26:04]) In a way, yes. They contain chemicals known as parabens and phthalates, which are used in common household and personal products to literally make fragrances stick to us. These chemicals also activate the PPAR Gamma receptor in our bodies, which is responsible for burning or storing fat. By changing the programming of these receptor cells, the chemicals can increase the number and size of our fat cells … and it has nothing to do with your diet or exercise habits.
Other chemicals disrupt our endocrine systems (endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDC).
Our EDC mimics or blocks the role of natural hormones. Chemicals masquerading as natural hormones slip into the lock-and-key function and mess up our hormonal system. Synthetic estrogen, for instance, has been linked to insulin resistance, which prompts the body to store new carbohydrates, while refusing to release the ones it already has.
Where do we find these everyday chemicals and how do we avoid them?
Phthalates are technically a class of chemicals, and within this class are synthetic estrogens, one of the most commonly used chemicals found in a variety of products. They are what give plastic products their flexibility, so they are found in garden hoses and vinyl shower curtains. They are also what fixes and holds fragrances in products, so they can be found in laundry detergent and shampoo.
When doing blood and urine tests on people, there are often large amounts of phthalates found. They can affect normal thyroid functioning and cause weight gain even in miniscule amounts. This is important to know because most of us aren’t exposed to industrial-sized doses of chemicals, so we think we’re OK. But the truth is these tiny doses accumulate over time to create real health problems.
Lara says that the average woman uses 12 personal products a day (shampoo, toothpaste, moisturizer, perfume, makeup, hair products). This is a lot of repeated exposure to tiny doses, but the body is programmed to respond to the lowest level of chemicals (levels that had previously been deemed safe), so it really does make a difference.
What can we do about it?
([42:01]) As Lara said before it’s a process and the easiest place is to start with the fragrance products you bring into your home: start phasing them out. Use up old products if you need to and then buy safer ones. Or throw out at the bad ones right away. But most importantly, read product labels the same as you do food labels. If you see the words fragrance or perfume (which is what non-personal-care products call phthalates), remember that they can represent 300 products, none of which you want in your body.
Buy instead unscented products or those fragranced with plant-based essential oils. Go to the Environmental Working Group’s website (www.ewg.org) or Lara’s Pinterest board for safe recommendations of personal care products that are fortunately becoming more and more accessible. In fact, Lara says the recent increase in consumer demand for non-toxic products has created such an influx of great products that it’s hard for her to keep up with what is hitting the market. “Try to have fun finding new, healthy choices,” she recommends.
I wondered if she thought the 80/20 rule (make the best choice 80% of the time, while cutting yourself a little slack 20% of the time) applies here. ([46:28]) “There are choices that this can be applied to from time to time,” she says. “Let’s change the things that we can control so if there are times that we can’t control our environment, then we cut ourselves some slack.”
The big question: deodorant – what to do?
Lara recommends two natural deodorants: PurePits and SoapWalla, both of which she says last a long time, are moisturizing, and don’t stain clothes.
Other key obesogens are pesticides.
These are found on conventionally grown foods, are endocrine-disrupting, carcinogenic, and neurological and reproductive toxins. Billions of pounds are currently used in the U.S. and end up in our food and water.
The solution here is to eat organically grown foods. Lara says they aren’t healthier because they’re necessarily more nutritious (though some are), but because they’re free of the chemicals that will make you sick. “I think of organic foods as a necessity,” she says. “It’s what sustains and nourishes you.”
The final obesogen is BPA.
([53:19]) Found in the lining of food cans and baby bottles, it was originally developed as a synthetic estrogen but later began to be used in products. It’s found in everything from dental sealants to cash register receipts. A simple way to reduce exposure is to stay away from canned foods, especially acidic canned foods (canned tomatoes being one of the worst offenders).
Also, be mindful of the type of food storage containers you use, especially if you flip it over and see a #7. Brita filters, Vitamix carafes, and your food processor bowl may all have BPA, so aim to use stainless steel and glass when you can. Otherwise, be careful with how you clean items containing BPA. Don’t put them in the dishwasher, and don’t use hot water or scrub them too hard. It’s also important to note that BPA-free plastics often simply swap to BPS, which is also a synthetic estrogen, so really learn about what you are using.