By Sarah Berry
Takeaway: Dr Joseph E. Pizzorno says salt is a "toxin of choice", along with cigarettes and alcohol.
Toxins are now a major contributor to, and in some cases the cause of, virtually all chronic diseases.
That's what Joseph E. Pizzorno, former advisor to President Clinton on complementary and alternative medicines, says.
"I have become convinced that the toxic load in modern civilisation is now probably even more important than nutritional deficiencies in terms of causing diseases in our patients," says Pizzorno, who is in Sydney to speak at the 3rd BioCeuticals Research Symposium on 17-19 April.
Toxic load and nutrition are closely linked, says Pizzorno.
"How many people think about excessive salt consumption as a toxin in the body," Pizzorno asks. "Did you know that when you eat excessive salt you impair the body's ability to produce glutathione [a substance produced by the liver]?
"And, glutathione is the key molecule required to get rid of chemical toxins. So, the higher the salt intake the less you are able to adequately detoxify and this is a significant factor in keeping toxins in peoples' bodies."
Pizzorno explains that salt is a "toxin of choice" along with cigarettes, alcohol and, depending on genetics, wheat for some people. Other types of toxins are environmental or internal "improperly detoxified hormones such as oestrogen, which if not properly detoxified becomes carcinogenic and microbial chemicals from the gut", for instance.
As far as "choice" toxins go, excessive consumption of certain foods is problematic, but even good foods can be bad for us.
"Pesticides used on the food people eat are a better predictor of type 2 diabetes than any other factor we have today," is the opinion of Pizzorno, who is also the founding president of Bastyr University and the co-author of the Encyclopaedia of Natural Medicine and The Clinician's Handbook of Natural Medicine.
"People in the top 10 per cent of toxic exposure have a 20-fold increase risk for diabetes. These chemicals are insulin receptor site poisons. So, insulin receptors can't respond because they are being poisoned by those persistent organic pollutants."
Harvard biomedical researcher Chirag Patel argues the connections are still murky.
Patel and other researchers have found a link between diabetes and persistent pollutants like the pesticide DDT. "But we still can't pin down the biology behind these correlations," he explains. "Are they biased by other factors such as age, for example, which is a huge risk factor for diabetes and cardiovascular disease?"
Still, pesticides have more than one professional concerned.
Dr. David Bellinger, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, haspreviously estimated that Americans have lost a total of 16.9 million IQ points due to exposure to organophosphates, a common type of pesticide used in agriculture in the US and in Australia.
These pesticides may also be responsible, in part, for the obesity epidemic, Pizzorno says.
"Researchers are now finding such a strong connection between the body load of these chemicals [contaminating the food supply] and diabetes and obesity that they are being called 'diabetoges' and 'obesogens'," he explains.
"These chemical toxins also preferentially convert calories into fat – hence they are being called obesogens. Since they are stored in fat, when a person starts losing weight these are released at higher concentrations making further weight loss even more difficult."
As Robert H. Lustig, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California,says of obesogens, "Even those at the lower end of the BMI [body mass index] curve are gaining weight. Whatever is happening is happening to everyone, suggesting an environmental trigger."
Adding to this difficulty is that the bigger a person is to begin with the more the body struggles to detoxify itself.
"This detoxification capability is also greatly impacted by diet as [it is] dependent on the availability of key nutrients that are often deficient in the diet," Pizzorno adds, noting that fibre, for example, is "critical" to the detoxification process.
"As we have evolved as a species, we had about 100-150g of fibre in our diet every day," he says. "Now in Western civilisations we have about 10-15g of fibre every day."
Professor Ian Rae, an honorary professorial fellow specialising in toxicology and pollutants at the University of Melbourne agrees with Pizzorno's points on fibre and "choice" toxins.
"He makes some good points," Rae says.
"Consuming more fibre, within sensible limits, is good for digestive efficiency."
Rae, however has a different perspective on toxins.
"The chemicals in our blood are gradually accumulated over time and although there is no proof they are harmful at the levels we experience, they are being removed from products and the environment and so blood levels are falling," he says.
"Those concerned to reduce their levels should avoid packaging, especially plastic of all kinds (difficult to manage in western society) and reduce their intake of [too much] fatty foods. Good advice on nutritional grounds, anyway!"
Pizzorno's top tips for reducing our exposure to toxic chemicals
1. Primarily eat organically grown foods. If you can't afford all organic, use websites such as ewg.org to determine which conventionally grown foods are the least contaminated.
2. Only use health and beauty aids which don't have added chemicals such as phthalates. "Products with fragrances have high levels of phthalates," Pizzorno explains. "Phthalates are odourless but they are present in the mixtures to ensure blending of the ingredients and to help with the 'feel' of the product," Rae adds, noting that those concerned about ought to choose phthalate-free products. "It is possible to exert some degree of control but i's not as easy as it sounds, since very few products disclose all their constituents, although some do."
3. Increase dietary fibre as this is a main mechanism for eliminating toxic chemicals and metals. Especially good sources are oat bran, ground flax seeds, beans and lentils.
4. See your healthcare practitioner who may recommend supplementation to promote detoxification. Rae takes issue with this point. "I'll bet there's never been a well-conducted trial of the supposed benefits," he says.
5. Only use dietary supplements which have been tested for quality and contamination. Be especially careful about traditional Ayurvedic combination products. "Really nothing more than hocus pocus," Rae says.
6. Eliminate toxins from your household. You may be surprised to find them in almost all commercial cleaning products as well as most garden products like weed control.
On this point, Rae disagrees. "Eliminating commercial cleaning products and garden products ... because they contain 'toxins' is simplistic and unnecessary," he counters. "Using these products as advised and taking care not to get them on the skin is good advice."