After nearly a year and a half of being advised to stay indoors and socially distanced, people are eager to enjoy summer.
“We’re going to concerts, dancing, comedy shows,” says my friend Diane Sanny, a retired dental hygienist (and a newlywed) who lives in Ashland, Oregon. “We’re looking for any excuse to be with people, laughing, having fun. Basically making up for all that lost time.”
But it’s not just fun—it’s healthy—to spend time in nature and socialize with family and friends. Still, as you enjoy the warm weather and the long summer days, it’s also important to limit your exposure to toxins.
The bad news is that our bodies are being constantly bombarded with toxic chemicals. There are at least 80,000 chemicals ubiquitous in the environment, most of which haven’t been sufficiently tested for their health effects. In fact, experts believe that an over-exposure to toxic chemicals is a major factor in poor health.
“Unfortunately, in our modern world we’re burdened with a huge amount of toxins in our diet and in our environment,” explains Dr. Mark Hyman in a video on his website. Hyman is an integrative doctor and founder of the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts.
These toxins include plastics, pesticides, phthalates, BPA, flame retardants, mercury, lead, and arsenic.
As Hyman explains, these toxicants can actually be the cause of obesity and many other health issues, including liver and kidney malfunction, hormone imbalances, and even brain disruption.
The good news is that once you’re aware of the toxins hiding in your food, water, beauty products, lawn—and even in your furniture and multivitamins—you can take steps to avoid them. You can choose nontoxic alternatives—like cleaning with vinegar—and make easy (and often inexpensive) lifestyle changes. And when you do, you reap the myriad health benefits that come with making safer choices.
So how do you limit your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals without making yourself crazy?
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” insists Dr. Rick Kirschner, past president of the Naturopathic Medicine Institute. “You start at the foot of the mountain instead of trying to jump to the top. The longest journey begins with that single step. For everyone, the biggest changes always happen one small step at a time.”
Kirschner, who lives in Sandpoint, Idaho, argues that the best way to reduce your exposure is to think about your bigger goals. Start by imagining where you want to be and what’s keeping you from getting there.
For example, much of your toxic exposure comes from the foods you eat, drugs you take, and lifestyle factors like staying indoors or smoking. Reducing these exposures may seem daunting.
But if your goal is to live a longer and more vibrant life, you can find motivation in a visit with older adults you admire. Ask them to share their secrets and how they lived their life. They didn’t have smartphones and Netflix, so how did they entertain themselves? You can also read up on longevity research (Dan Buettner’s “The Blue Zones” is a great place to start; as is Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge’s classic “Younger Next Year”). Or start an accountability or toxin-free living group with like-minded friends so you can keep each other on track and share tips.
That’s the big picture. But what can you do today, right now, to enjoy your summer fun free from toxins?
It’s hot out there and you need to stay hydrated. Good hydration helps your kidneys and other organs function properly. It also helps regulate body temperature and improve sleep, brain function, and mood, according to researchers at Harvard University.
Skip the sugar-laden, dye-filled conventional sodas and opt for filtered water instead. But not plastic bottled water. Bottled water in plastic containers is a poor choice for the environment and for your body. Consider this: A 2018 study published in Frontiers in Chemistry found that 93 percent of bottled water contains microplastic, some of which was visible to the naked eye. Especially if the water is heated (from, say, sitting in a hot car), chemicals in the plastic bottles, including bisphenol-A, can leach into it. So when you’re thirsty, buy spring water in glass containers. Or, even better, bring your own filtered water in a stainless steel thermos or glass bottle from home.
What you eat matters. We all know that. But at the same time, we’re bombarded with images of gorgeous happy people eating doughnuts, sweetened yogurt, and toaster pastries. Food dyes have been linked to hyperactivity and attention disorders in children and found to be contaminated with carcinogens, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s report “A Rainbow of Risks.”
We know bright pink cotton candy contains Red Dye No. 40 and Smurf blue ice cream usually has Blue Dye No. 1 or No. 2. But even if you think you’re making healthy food choices, you may be unwittingly eating food dyes.
Conventional pickles, canned fruit, and even salmon are often prettied up with food dyes. The key to avoiding these toxins is to choose whole foods over packaged items (cucumbers make a refreshing summer snack) and read the ingredient labels. If dyes—or ingredients you don’t recognize—are listed on the packaging, put the item back on the shelf.
It’s not easy to change your eating habits. In fact, Dr. Sidney Baker, an integrative doctor I spoke with in 2019 for an article on aging, said that in his long career, he found that it was harder to get people to change the way they eat than to change their religious affiliation. You may feel strongly that buying organic isn’t worth it. Or you may simply take comfort eating the processed foods you grew up eating.
In her new book “Toxic Legacy,” Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes environmental toxicants, in particular, glyphosate (the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup), as a “slow kill.”
Food that isn’t farmed organically is often very high in toxic chemicals such as glyphosate and glyphosate-containing formulations. As Seneff points out, this ubiquitous herbicide has been linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other negative health effects, including gluten intolerance and even infertility.
Though even some organic food has been found to contain glyphosate (likely due to nearby non-organic producers) and other toxic chemicals, the best way to limit your exposure to herbicides and pesticides is still to choose organic over conventional foods as often as possible. This is a trend that is gaining traction. Many grocery stores are now stocking organic produce and other items at comparable pricing to conventional food.
What’s in the drawers in your bathroom? How about the cupboards under your kitchen sink? Though you may not realize it, it’s likely that some—perhaps many—of the products you’re using are teeming with chemicals and toxins.
Many cosmetics contain quarternium-15, a preservative that off-gasses formaldehyde. Conventional baby care products and hair relaxers are often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a petroleum-derived cancer-causing chemical also found in soaps, shampoos, and laundry detergents (even though it’s not listed on the ingredients).
Go through your home one room at a time. Read the labels on the beauty care products, cleaning products, and even your toothpaste. Opt for fragrance-free, dye-free products containing ingredients you recognize.
If it feels too expensive to buy organic beauty care, skincare, and cleaning products, try making your own. Even if you aren’t a DIYer, making your own counter spray, dish detergent, and laundry soap is easy. And, at just pennies a batch, homemade cleaning products are less toxic and less expensive.
Most of us don’t usually think of stress as a toxin but many doctors argue that it is. Stress triggers a biochemical shift that leaves the body with too much cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone that suppresses the immune system even as it raises blood pressure and blood sugar. This hormone shift prepares us for immediate action, but puts us in a debilitated state for most of life’s demands. The more anxious we are, the harder it is to think clearly, sleep deeply, and enjoy life.
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere have found that while infrequent, short-lived stress can be beneficial, chronic and acute stress can cause physical decline, cognitive impairment, and even immune dysfunction.
A fabulous way to alleviate toxic stress is with gentle exercise. Daily exercise not only improves your mood and reduces your anxiety levels, it also helps your body rid itself of toxins. Kirschner (the past president of the Naturopathic Medicine Institute) prefers to think of it as movement, rather than exercise. It’s not about breaking your bench press record at the gym or running a marathon, it’s about incorporating movement into your day—stand up every 20 minutes while you’re doing desk work, take the stairs instead of the elevator, park several blocks from your destination, and take other opportunities to get in a quick walk.
“My wife told me one day doing yard work is like going to the gym,” Kirschner says, “and it made doing the yard work a real pleasure.”
If you need an example for inspiration, consider the date my friend Diane and her husband, Richard Ulrich, are planning for the weekend: a picnic in the park. Sanny will make organic butter lettuce wraps with curried chicken and celery. Ulrich will cut up organic watermelon and pack it in a glass container. They’re also bringing carrot and cucumber sticks to dip in hummus. And they’ll sit by Bear Creek in Lithia Park, listening to the burbling water, and taking turns reading “The 5 Love Languages” out loud to each other. That’s the kind of detox we could all enjoy.