Environmental toxins and impact on healthy aging

We live in an environment that contains a complex mixture of harmful chemicals and disease causing pathogens. This post briefly covers common environmental toxins and how we can avoid damage from exposure to them.

Heavy metals and their impact on healthy aging

The healthy function of the body requires metals, like iron, zinc and copper.  Other metals, such as mercury and arsenic, have no role in human physiology.  Although the body tries to put them where metals should go, like a square peg in a round hole they don’t fit and get stuck. This can disrupt healthy functions, as well as lead to their progressive accumulation. The ones we should do our best to avoid include:

  • Mercury – increased exposure to mercury is associated with hypertension, heart disease and oxidative stress. You should try to limit your intake of long-lived predatory fish, such as swordfish, shark, marlin and mackerel, which have mercury levels 10 times higher than most other fish. This doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding them altogether, as a single meal is in no way toxic. But you shouldn’t make a habit of it. As a source of lean protein and essential fatty acids, fish is too important to keep off the menu, particularly if it is replacing red meat. Just consider the small fry more often.
  • Cadmium — chronic exposure has been associated with oxidative stress, high blood pressure, heart disease and some cancers.  Increased levels of cadmium are mostly observed in chronic smokers and in those drinking polluted water.
  • Arsenic — is the classic poison. In lower doses, it leads to oxidative stress and its consequences including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and accelerated aging. Outside of industry and  polluted water, the main sources of arsenic around the home are fungicides and wood preservatives. Remember not to edge your vegetable patch with treated pine, unless it is arsenic-free! Untreated hardwood is a safer alternative.
  • Lead — long-term exposure to lead can cause kidney disease, mental disease, cognitive decline and anaemia. Watch out when stripping old paint by sanding. Some pottery glazes also contain lead which leaches out when exposed to acid liquids, such as soft drinks and fruit juices.
  • Aluminium — in individuals with impaired kidney function (and therefore reduced ability to remove aluminium from the body), accumulation of aluminium leads to anaemia, bone thinning and cognitive decline. Any toxicity of aluminium in individuals with healthy detoxification systems remains unproven. There are enough calories in soft drinks to consider avoiding them, without even thinking about the aluminium.

Pesticide contamination and the impact on healthy aging

One of the greatest changes in human agriculture has been the transition from organic practices to farming techniques that involve the use of synthetic herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and other chemicals to increase crop yields or quality. As a result, nearly two out of three products on the supermarket shelf contains pesticide residue. The highest levels are often in foods considered healthy, like fresh fruit and vegetables. Many of these pesticides are carcinogenic or have effects on brain function, hormonal regulation and reproductive health. For the most part, we don’t know what the long-term exposure to the low levels of pesticides commonly found in our food will do to our health. However, given the clear association between industrial exposure to pesticides and poor health, it is prudent to try to limit our exposure.

Mycotoxins and the impact on healthy aging

One group of naturally occurring environmental toxins are the mycotoxins made by fungi (e.g. moulds, mildew, spores and mushrooms). A number of these chemicals have been shown to impact on human health, including mental disorders, liver and kidney disease and some cancers. The main source of exposure to mycotoxins is your diet. Fresh is always best. Throw away fruit and vegetables that have passed their use by date. Poor quality grain or mouldy vegetable components are sometimes used as animal food. These can accumulate in meat, milk and eggs. Most food safety programs monitor mycotoxin levels in various mass-produced food sources. However, smaller farmers and producers cannot guarantee this kind of quality control. So be careful. Inhaling mycotoxins in a mouldy indoor setting is recognized as a potential source of toxic exposure. Many people have allergies to mould. A simple way to deal with this risk is to check our house and work environment for mould and damp conditions and take the necessary steps to eradicate all traces. Replace old pillows and mattresses if necessary.

Foods that stimulate the activity of the liver’s detoxification enzymes include:

  • Dietary crucifers, such as broccoli, cabbage, sprouts and kale, contain sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol.
  • Epigallocatechin gallate contained in green tea.
  • Curcumin from turmeric.
  • Limonene from citrus peel.
  • Isoflavones and lignans from soy foods and flax seed.
  • Garlic, onion and leek support sulphation, one of the 6 primary phases of liver detoxification.
  • Oral supplementation with glycine (an amino acid) has also been found to improve detoxification in some individuals.

Last Reviewed 03/Mar/2014


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Dr Merlin Thomas

Professor Merlin Thomas is Professor of Medicine at Melbourne’s Monash University, based in the Department of Diabetes. He is both a physician and a scientist. Merlin has a broader interest in all aspects of preventive medicine and ageing. He has published over 270 articles in many of the worlds’ leading medical journals