Asbestos…pesticides…tobacco smoke. We do our best to steer clear of these well-known harmful substances.

But what about the toxins we haven’t heard of—the ones that can be found in places we’d never suspect? The truth is, toxins are everywhere—in most rugs and paints…cleaning supplies…cosmetics and perfumes…and the fumes from a gas pump. Even most food cans and the ubiquitous pizza box, designed to hold heat and resist stains, pose risks because of chemicals that, in our bodies, alter our hormones and our immune systems. 

 Recent development: While most of these hidden toxins are feared for their potential to cause cancer, mounting research shows that these substances also increase risk for serious health problems, such as diabetes and asthma—and more mundane ills like fatigue, poor concentration and memory problems. 

Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the US have been adequately tested for safety. But if toxins are everywhere, how can you stay safe? The answer is to limit your “toxic load.” Here’s how…

Step 1: Eat Organic

A nutritious diet—lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc.—can prevent disease. But these foods aren’t always as healthful as you would imagine. 

Modern agriculture depends on synthetic brews of pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides. Many go-to healthy foods have been flagged by the Environmental Working Group for high pesticide levels. 

My advice: I strongly advise patients to buy organic foods—both packaged foods and produce. They contain few (or none) of the most harmful chemicals.

If cost is an issue, be sure that you buy the following 12 foods identified by the Environmental Working Group as the most important to purchase as organic—strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes.

Step 2: Rid Your Body of Toxins

Exposure to toxins increases levels of harmful bacteria in the intestines that overload the detoxifying capacity of the liver…decreases levels of beneficial probiotic organisms…and damages the intestinal lining, which allows harmful substances to pass from the gut into the bloodstream—a condition known as “leaky gut.” My advice…*

Take a fiber supplement (such as Metamucil, one to two teaspoons) a half hour before or after meals. Fiber binds to toxins and harmful bacteria to accelerate their excretion in the stools.

Recolonize the intestine with the probiotics Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium to help heal the intestinal walls. Many brands contain both ­organisms. Take one capsule, at least one billion colony-forming units (CFUs), three times daily. I advise taking this supplement indefinitely.

Step 3: Take a Safer Painkiller

People with arthritis or other painful conditions often take daily doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve)…or the pain reliever acetaminophen (Tylenol). But all of these drugs can impair the ability of your kidneys to remove toxins from the body.

Safer choices: Take a natural pain reliever, such as the herb butterbur. It reduces inflammation and can relieve pain from headaches and other conditions. Curcumin is another excellent anti-­inflammatory. Follow label instructions.

Step 4: Test Your Toxin Levels

Your doctor may suggest “target testing” if he/she suspects that you’ve been exposed to a certain toxin, such as lead in your drinking water. But even if you don’t have symptoms (or risk factors), I advise getting a general test for toxins and repeating it every year or two. 

One such test is the urinary 8-OHdG, which looks at metabolites that are released when DNA is damaged—a potential sign of elevated toxins. If your results are abnormal, work with your doctor to identify which toxin levels are elevated and their source so you can decrease your exposure as much as possible.

*Before taking any supplement, check with your doctor if you have a chronic medical condition or take medication.

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