When comparing our modern-day lives with those of our grandparents, it is clear that our environment has changed greatly. Not just the natural world, but in our day-to-day lives as well. We are exposed to hundreds of times more chemicals, toxins, and different forms of radiation than generations past. At the same time chronic disease rates are soaring. The sum total of the things we’re exposed to on any given day through eating, drinking, breathing, and using products is what is called environmental exposures. You can take control of your health by paying attention to your environmental exposures.
Below is the third and final installation of a series on environmental exposures and their solutions. This article focuses on behaviours in our daily lives that involve environmental exposures and the impact they have on our overall health. The solutions are based on the questions posed in our Environmental quiz – please take the quiz today!
- How much alcohol do you drink?
It is well known that excessive alcohol consumption is detrimental to your health. It can cause major deficiencies, liver and heart problems, diabetes, mental health concerns, hormonal imbalances, damage to an unborn child, and lead to addiction and even death, not to mention the negative effect it can have on loved ones. But what about moderate alcohol intake? It is true that there are actually some benefits to having some alcohol, but at what level of intake do the risks outweigh the benefits? The research points to different cutoffs for different conditions. Large studies show that one drink per day may actually be protective against heart disease, stroke, gallstones and type 2 diabetes. This is because alcohol intake (below or at the 1 drink/day level) raises HDL “good” cholesterol, and reduces the formation of small blood clots. Red wine has earned esteem for its antioxidant properties that also show a protective effect on the heart, blood sugar regulation and on inflammation. It is also important to mention the psychological benefits of having a social night with friends that involves a glass of alcohol. Depending on the person, this aspect of drinking alcohol could reduce stress, bring people together and build the health resiliency of a strong community.
Despite it being protective in some areas of our health, even just two drinks a day (just one drink over the recommended level) can increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer by as much as 41%. This points to the large role that alcohol plays in hormonal disregulation due to its effect on the liver.
Overall, the general scientific consensus lands at alcohol offering potential long-term benefits if consumed at no more than 1-2 drinks per day for men, and no more than 1 drink per day for women. Timing of intake is important as well, meaning drinking all 7 drinks for a week should not be consumed in on night (binge drinking) as that has exponentially more harmful effects than drinking 7 drinks on separate nights. If you don’t drink, this does not mean you should start in order to get the benefits. This is to inform those who already drink about healthy levels and what impact it has on their bodies. As the famous Paracelsus once said, “the dose makes the poison”.
For information on the impact of different types of alcohol, see https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/is-wine-fine-or-beer-better/
- How much exercise do you get?
Exercise is great for balance, strength, muscle tone and flexibility. It is well known that exercise is an important part of a healthy routine. The minimum recommendation for physical exercise for adults in Canada is at least a total of 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate-to-vigorous physical exercise (breaking a sweat) per week. But it isn’t beneficial just for our physique; it has great benefits for the functioning of our endocrine system as well. Regular exercise is known to impact almost all hormones in the body that are responsible for such important functions as blood sugar regulation, menstrual cycles, sleep-wake cycles, and the creation, distribution and utilization of energy in the body. It is understandable then, that the hormone regulation that comes from regular exercise is protective against conditions related to hormonal imbalance. Long-term studies have found that the more exercise a woman gets per week, the lower her lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is. For women already diagnosed with breast cancer, exercise during and after treatment reduces side effects, improves response to treatment, and ultimately overall prognosis. In another part of the endocrine system, the balancing effect that exercise has on blood sugar levels and the hormones insulin and glucagon also helps protect against developing type 2 diabetes. In the nervous system, exercise is known to be a very effective salve for mental health concerns like anxiety, depression and bipolar conditions (see mental health and exercise article here: http://naturalterrain.com/exercise-helps-mental-health/) Managing physical, hormonal and emotional health with exercise is a healthy way to help your body help itself and get back to normal eating, sleeping, and menstruating cycles – all of which then keep you healthy! Interestingly, all these above effects are independent from weight loss. However, if adding exercise to your routine also helps you reduce your weight to a healthy level (and your detoxification systems are functioning), the hormonal, mental health and systemic benefits may be even larger.
- Do you suffer from any of the following: ongoing fatigue, headaches, pain, and constant colds and coughs?
Each of these symptoms is a sign that there are larger dysfunctions happening in various systems of your body. Frequent colds and coughs could signify a low immune system. Headaches and pain could point to inflammation and an inability to clear out toxins fast enough to prevent buildup. Fatigue could be a sign that your body is under-functioning in some respect, having too much to process and cope with. Exposure to environmental chemicals is one way these whole-body issues arise. Headaches, for example, are shown to be common symptoms after workplace exposure to chemical irritants, either once from a big one-time exposure (a workplace accident or renovation), or over time (a little bit of mold or other irritant in the workplace every day). Irritants have been shown to make the nerve fibres that sense pain and the blood vessel system in the head more sensitive and reactive after exposure. Air pollution is another irritant that is known to cause asthma, chronic cough, skin irritation, headaches and liver cancer. Such health effects of environmental exposure are far-reaching too: a 2017 study in Ontario showed that maternal exposure to air pollution is also correlated with higher risk of childhood cancers in offspring. Exposure to pollution, toxins and irritants are damaging to the immune system because all immune cells come from the bone marrow, the place in the body that is most sensitive to the toxicity of environmental exposures. Toxins can either reduce immune cell formation or lead to defective immune cells, leading to fatigue, low immune defences to colds and flus, or even lead to autoimmune disease.
- Have you been diagnosed with low thyroid function or a skin condition (ie eczema, psoriasis, acne)?
Low thyroid function, or hypothyroidism, is a condition that can either be autoimmune (the body is attacking its own thyroid gland out of confusion or an over-stressed immune system) or from other direct damage done to the thyroid. Research shows that environmental exposure to chemicals can increase the risk of both causes of hypothyroidism. Chemical agents such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenols, found in old electric equipment), BPA and PFCs (bisphenolic acid and perflourinated chemicals, found in many plastics), pesticides and fluoride can disrupt the thyroid. Autoimmune or direct damage to the thyroid results in whole-body symptoms affecting energy, appetite, weight change, temperature, digestion, heart rate, and sweating, among other body functions. It is important to know that your thyroid could be damaged from your exposures to environmental chemicals. Check back in on part 1 and 2 of this environmental solutions article series to learn more about these chemicals and identify what changes you can in your life to reduce your exposure.
- Do you use Advil, Tylenol, Immodium or any over the counter (OTC) medication more than 1x/ year?
Billions of dollars are spent every year on OTC drugs in Canada. It’s important to remember that simply because it’s available without consulting a doctor doesn’t mean it’s always safe. Acute toxicity is a real risk with OTC medications now, firstly because many products combine different amounts of ingredients for different symptoms (cough, cold, flu, pain, drowsiness, insomnia, diarrhea, etc) making it difficult to keep track of how much has been taken, and secondly because not everyone reads the label correctly. A 2012 survey showed that 24% of respondents unwittingly exceed the safe limit of 4,000 milligrams of acetaminophen over a 24-hour period. Acute overdose of acetaminophen (Tylenol) can cause acute liver failure and even death. The same study revealed that anti-diarrheal medications are some of the most abused products on the market. Overuse of this type of medication can cause electrolyte imbalance and heart disturbances. Beyond overdose toxicity, chronic use of some OTC medication is now implicated in higher risk of developing dementia. OTCs that fall into this category are medications that have anticholinergic properties. For more information about this, see my article on dementia and how to prevent it: http://naturalterrain.com/10-ways-reduce-risk-dementia/
- Are you more than 15 lbs overweight?
Extra weight is a storehouse for chemicals and other factors that contribute to hormone imbalances. Fat cells, or adipose, can bind and hold chemicals in your body. Some chemicals that are water-soluble are excreted in the urine, while other chemicals such as pesticides, preservatives, food additives, and other pollutants are fat-soluble, meaning they get trapped in layers of fat. These can slowly leach out into the blood stream or come out in bursts and flood the rest of the body, manifesting in flu-like symptoms or gastrointestinal upset. The US Environmental Protection Agency did a survey in the 80’s called the National Human Adipose Tissue Survey (NHATS) on cadavers across the country and discovered harmful chemicals in 100% of the samples, ranging from dangerous dioxins to PBCs and other industrial solvents. Chemicals end up here because they accumulate in the food chain, in our environments, in our plastics and other materials. They accumulate and are stored in the adipose of our bodies and then cause harm to us when they are released; unfortunately they are released most when weight is lost from fat burning. This is why it is important to tone your detoxification systems like your liver and kidneys while drinking plenty of water if you are losing weight. Fat itself can actually make and release estrogen into the body as well. Therefore the presence of fat alone raises the levels of some hormones with systemic effects. Too-high levels of estrogen as well as too-low levels can ultimately lead to more symptoms of systemic hormonal imbalance.
These are some important considerations to have in mind when you are making decisions for better health for you and your family. Talk with your Naturopathic doctor to find out more about how you can protect yourself from environmental exposure to chemicals, irritants and hormone disruptors.
All photos are free under creative commons license, obtained from pixaby.com
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