Autoimmunity and Body Burden

I’m taking a little breather from my weekly 10-part Minerals and Your Thyroid series. If you’ve been tuned in, you remember that a couple of weeks ago, we talked about how iodine is “the big daddy.”

Well, selenium, which is next up in the series, isn’t far behind. Maybe it’s “the big mama.” It’s a major player in thyroid function and for reasons I’ll explain next week, I’ve nicknamed selenium “the thyroid triple play.”

In short, there’s much to say about the selenium / thyroid relationship and I need a little more time to give mama her due.

Yesterday, I was interviewed by my friend and colleague, Dr. Michelle Robin, about autoimmunity.

She’s an author, international speaker, and the creator of the Small Changes, Big Shifts radio show, and each month, she addresses a new topic and this month, it’s autoimmune diseases. I was honored to chime in in yesterday’s show.

One concept that I brought up in the conversation was the body burden / autoimmunity relationship.

Dr. Michelle asked me if I had a blog post on body burden. I said, “I don’t, but I have a handout on it that I could turn into a blog post.”

So that’s what I did – today’s post is an expanded iteration of our handout.

Let’s talk body burden…

The trappings of modern life are inundating our bodies with toxins and confusing our immune systems. It’s a sobering thought, but rest assured, it’s not all doom and gloom.

Whether it’s from food, water, skin care products, cosmetics, mattresses, kitchen tools (nonstick, plastics, etc.), building/construction materials, or the products we’re using to clean our homes, our bodies are being forced to work overtime to purge the byproducts of a modern, industrialized society. 

According to Dr. Aviva Romm, “Body burden has become a critical health and environmental problem. It refers to the total amount of toxic chemicals in your body at a given time, or the amount of a single chemical, for example, arsenic, lead, mercury, or PCB, to name just a few.”

These chemicals can negatively impact our metabolism and our nervous, immune, and endocrine/hormonal systems. They can cause cancer, autism, diabetes, infertility, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and countless other health conditions.

Our immune system isn’t designed to manage a heavy toxic load. As we increase the burden on our bodies from these exposures, the immune system gets confused and goes haywire. Like, “Hey, what is all this stuff?” and it launches a seek-and-destroy mission on these troublemakers and becomes overactive and hypervigilant. The perfect storm for the onset of autoimmunity. A tipping point.

As they say, “Genetics load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.” But just because you have a genetic propensity for autoimmunity doesn’t mean that your trigger will get pulled. If your body is burdened by environmental toxins, it’s more likely that the finger is on the trigger.

As Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of The Autoimmune Epidemic states, “Our immune system is like a barrel. And we all know that a barrel can only hold so much. We can take a lot, but there can be that last drop – that one drop – that causes it to spill over. For many people, autoimmunity occurs with that last drop. And many of those drops we put into our own barrel…”

What You Can Do
The purpose of this post isn’t to outline all of the sources of toxic exposure – that’s fodder for a book!

What’s important to know is that there are two primary methods of curtailing the harm from toxic substances:

1. Limit the amount of toxins you consume, inhale, and absorb; and
2. Boost the systems in your body that are responsible for detoxification.

In other words, instead of doing some kind of harsh detox that can backfire and make you sick, gently support your glands of detoxification.

(This said, some people with considerable toxic load do need a medical-grade detox. For clients who need this level of support, we refer them to Healthful Elements’ Medical Advisor, Dr. Carrie Getzmier, for a safe, effective, medically-managed detox.)

Sources: The information below is largely adapted from Dr. Aviva Romm and Lara Adler.

Get Rid of the Bad

Although the myriad sources of toxins in our daily lives can seem overwhelming, even small reductions in our exposure are beneficial. Studies show that, for example, when children are transitioned from a conventional diet to an all-organic diet, the levels of toxic chemicals in their blood is dramatically reduced in as little as one week.

To that end, consider where, in your life, you can reduce your toxic exposure. Here are some easy places to start:

1. Eat organic. Whether it’s a can of beans or bunch of kale, eat only those foods that are certified organic or sustainably raised (no chemical use) to reduce your consumption of the pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and other chemicals in our food supply.

If you can’t afford to go completely organic, avoid the “Dirty Dozen” – those foods that have been shown to absorb the highest levels of harmful chemicals. These foods include apples, strawberries, celery, potatoes, lettuce, peppers, and blueberries. “Clean” foods, such as onions, corn, and pineapple, absorb minimal amounts of pesticides and can be consumed relatively safely, even when grown conventionally. For more information on the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15,” visit the Environmental Working Group.

2. Use only eco-friendly cleaning products. Say goodbye to the cleaning aisle at Target. Most traditional products are chock full of dangerous chemicals that have no place in our homes (even those products that claim to be “green”). 

Certain brands are reliably safe, such as Ecover and Seventh Generation, and others listed on EWG’s site, but consider making your own. It’s incredibly easy and inexpensive. A little vinegar and baking soda go a long way, and along with some castile soap, borax, lemon juice, and a couple of essential oils, there’s virtually no surface in your home that you can’t get clean. Check out The Daily Green or Eartheasy for some ideas and formulas to get you started.

3. Completely avoid plastic beverage bottles and food containers, which can leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Switch to glass bottles. Reuse a glass jar, or buy a bottle from Lifefactory.

4. Use eco-friendly cosmetics and hygiene products. How do you feel about eating lead when you inadvertently lick off your lipstick? Many body products are riddled with heavy metals and other toxins. Do your research before you head to the store, and buy only those products with clean ingredients, such as Beautycounter

Consult the EWG’s Cosmetics Database or the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, or again, consider making your own. You’d be surprised how simple it is to make your own facial cleansers, moisturizers, and even deodorant. Dig around online to find a recipe that intrigues you and give it a shot.

5. Look around your home. The more upholstery you have the more flame retardants are in the air. Mattresses are notorious for flame retardants, which are a major source of inhalable toxins. 

Are you thinking about sprucing up your space with a fresh coat of paint? Beware of VOCs. Next time you shop for sheets, opt for organic cotton. For virtually every product we buy for our homes, there are greener, safer options. Do your research before you shop.

Boost the Good
Once we slow the onslaught of toxins entering our bodies, they will be better able to rid themselves of those already present. 

Our bodies have six built-in detox mechanisms: the liver, kidneys, colon, lymph, lungs, and skin.

For our lungs, our best bet is simply to breathe, deeply and fully. Dark leafy greens also nourish and support the respiratory system to a great degree.

To help our skin purge toxins, we need to keep it as healthy as possible. Load up on those free-radical-fighting antioxidants (e.g., deeply-colored berries), and allow your body to sweat. Take a sauna. And take a quality Omega-3 fatty acid for healthy, supple skin.

The liver is essentially a giant filter, and is thus “the big daddy” organ of detoxing. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to help it along:

  • Start off your mornings with the juice of half a lemon in some warm water. Do this first thing – before you eat breakfast.
  • When brewing a cup of tea, choose liver-supporting teas like dandelion, milk thistle, turmeric, and nettle. You can also get dandelion and milk thistle tincture, which is one of my all time favorite herbal remedies.
  • In the spring, dandelion and nettle greens are widely available at farmers’ markets, and are delicious when lightly sautéed with a bit of olive oil, lemon juice and fresh garlic (just be sure to blanch your nettle first to remove the stingers).
  • Eat plenty of cooked cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts. These foods will not slow your thyroid function.

The kidneys filter your blood – more than 48 gallons of it every day. And what’s the best thing you can do to support kidney function? Drink water. That’s all you need, but get plenty of it, and make sure it’s clean and filtered.

Your colon is another big detoxer, so it’s critical that it’s working optimally. If waste backs up in your bowels, toxins can be reabsorbed into the body. To support your colon, be sure to get plenty of fiber daily to keep things moving along smoothly and regularly. A quality, multi-strain probiotic can also help.

If you need more help in getting things “moving,” read this.

Finally, the lymphatic system – a fascinating network of organs, nodes, ducts, and vessels that transport lymph fluid throughout your body – is a major part of your immune system.

The lymph nodes filter the fluid, but they don’t have a pump to purge the toxins. We can help by dry brushing our skin regularly to remove dead skin cells and improve circulation. (This will obviously boost skin health as well.)

We can also stimulate the lymph nodes by exercising and sweating and by drinking warm lemon water. Taking a sauna is another great option to boost the lymph system and if you have obvious signs of lymph stagnation, such as edema, manjistha is a wonderful Ayurvedic herb that decongests lymph.

Lastly, I’m not advocating living in a bubble or regressing to a pre-WWII lifestyle, but learning about these toxins and making better choices is an opportunity to redesign the future.

In other words, the game isn’t over yet. We can influence the outcome. We need to find better, safer, cleverer ways to work with nature, not against it. It’s going to take knowledge, leadership, and commitment.

And the best way to begin is by implementing changes in your own life. Not only will you feel better, but your actions may have a ripple effect throughout your community. Never underestimate the power of one!

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Love it. Thanks Jill. :)

Awesome post

My daughter was recently diagnosed with Hasimotos.  She also developed vitiligo.  Your posts are extremely helpful as we all adopt a healthier lifestyle.  Thank you so very much!

Thanks, Kim. As much as I hate to say it, this post is the tip of the iceberg. I envision writing a substantive multi-part series on all of this in early 2016.

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