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Image: Luis Miranda
Rich Pedroncelli  /  AP
Organic farmer Luis Miranda places summer squash out for sale July 7 at a farmer's market in Sacramento, Calif.
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updated 9/3/2010 4:12:10 PM ET 2010-09-03T20:12:10

We live in a toxic world. Whether you live next to an oil refinery or on a pristine mountaintop in the Rockies, you carry environmental toxins in your tissues. From heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium — emitted from smokestacks and vehicle exhaust — to pesticides, fertilizers, and PCB's released into rivers and soil, and phthalates that off-gas from household plastic products, we are all swimming in a soup of toxic chemicals.

Minimize exposure
Environmental toxins affect all bodily systems and have been linked to the development of endocrine, immune, reproductive, metabolic, cardiovascular, cognitive, and behavioral disorders. The nervous system is especially vulnerable to toxic exposure. The brain is made up primarily of lipids. And because most environmental toxins are lipid-soluble — that is, they dissolve easily in lipids — brain tissue is particularly sensitive to them. A number of neurodegenerative ailments have been linked to toxin exposure, including Parkinson's disease, ALS, learning disabilities, conduct disorders, and certain dementias. Many neurological symptoms of toxic exposure are common and not linked to a specific disease, including headaches, fatigue, impaired concentration and memory, and insomnia.

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Those are sobering facts, but there are ways to protect yourself. Two primary strategies to reduce the impact of environmental toxins on your health are: 1) minimize exposure and absorption in the first place, and 2) develop a routine to detoxify your body on a regular basis.

The best way to avoid toxic exposure is to eat only organically grown food, or as much of it as you can. In her new book, "Organic Manifesto," Maria Rodale shares the staggering research on environmental toxins and lays out an elegant plan for improving your health and the health of the planet by going organic.

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Here are three key strategies for enjoying organic foods:

  • Find a local farmer's market where you can buy fresh, local, organic food directly from a grower.
  • At the supermarket, look for the USDA Organic seal.
  • Buy in bulk and store the excess for later to take advantage of seasonal prices.

To provide expert information on detoxifying, I spoke with Tereza Hubkova, MD, an integrative physician and a colleague of mine at Canyon Ranch. She had this to share:

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"All of us have toxins stored in the tissues of our body. Based on our genetic makeup, some of us get away with it, but many people don't. Symptoms of toxic exposure can be so nonspecific (headaches, fatigue, weakness) that you may never suspect they are related to toxins in your body, and thus, never even get tested or treated.

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While eating organic is ideal, even if you eat organic food and drink pure spring water, you've been exposed to environmental toxins. They are in the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, and many of the products we use. Studies have shown they reside in the fat cells of everyone's body, even newborn infants'. Your body is capable of removing toxins to some extent (well or poorly — based on your genes and lifestyle), but if you are exposed to too many toxins, the capacity to remove them will be overwhelmed and symptoms or illness may develop."

What it means
Toxins are a fact of life, but a two-pronged approach of avoiding them when possible and eliminating the ones that accumulate in your body can make a difference.

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Dr. Hubkova recommends the following seven strategies for supporting healthy detoxification:

1. Eat mostly organic food, especially foods that support detoxification, including cruciferous vegetables, garlic and onions. A healthy, balanced diet is a key to efficient detoxification. The lighter the toxic load on your body, the better it can handle those toxins that get through your defenses.

2. Engage in regular vigorous exercise. Increased respiration, circulation, and perspiration all support healthy detoxification.

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3. Hop in the sauna frequently. Perspiring is one of your body's best ways of releasing toxins.

4. Drink at least 64 ounces of fresh, pure water each day. The combination of good hydration and frequent perspiration helps to flush your system of toxins.

5. Stay regular. Elimination once or twice a day helps to decrease absorption of toxins. Consistent exercise, hydration, and fiber will help to keep you regular.

6. If you are trying to lose weight, make sure to engage in the detox practices described above. As you shed fat, toxins held in fat cells are released. It is essential to cleanse those toxins from your body, rather than reabsorb them, which can cause illness.

7. Use antioxidants. Antioxidants such as alpha-lipoic acid, N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine, and the B vitamins help with detoxification. The best detoxification regimen for you depends on your unique genetic makeup, as well as the particular toxins you are dealing with. Consult with an integrative physician or naturopathic doctor, who can evaluate you to determine the best combination of diet and supplements for you. The American College for Advancement in Medicine and the Institute for Functional Medicine maintain national listings of integrative and naturopathic physicians.

To learn more about environmental toxins, check out the Environmental Working Group website. To find out about specific environmental toxins in your area, listed by zipcode, go to www.scorecard.org.


Is Organic Food Healthier?

Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, "Mind-Body-Mood Advisor," appears weekly on Rodale.com.

Copyright© 2013 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction, transmission or display is permitted without the written permissions of Rodale Inc.

Video: When should you splurge on organic?

  1. Transcript of: When should you splurge on organic?

    NATALIE MORALES, co-host: Walk down the grocery aisle, take a trip to the farmers market and you'll see it everywhere, the word "organic," from meat to produce to bread. But organic foods often come with a heftier price tag, so are they really worth it? The day starts early at Dan Gibson 's farm.

    Mr. DAN GIBSON: It's a chorus.

    MORALES: A little more than a hundred miles, but a world away from the Wall Street career he left behind to raise black Angus cattle and chickens.

    Mr. GIBSON: The healthiest profile of beef is when they eat what nature intended, and that's grass only.

    MORALES: Dan 's beef and chicken isn't certified organic because, he says, when it comes to meat, organic isn't the whole story.

    Mr. GIBSON: You could take cattle and feed them organic grain in a feed lot and be certified organic . That's not what we're about.

    MORALES: Dan sells his grass-fed beef at local green markets, where most products are grown organically.

    Mr. MICHAEL POLLEN: In general, you want to eat food that comes from as close to you as possible and is picked as fresh as possible.

    MORALES: Michael Pollen is the author of several best-selling books such as " The_Omnivore 's_Dilemma" and " In Defense of Food ," works that have inspired many Americans to take a second look at what and how they eat.

    Mr. POLLEN: I don't think we can say that organic is always better for you. I think we can say it's always better for the environment.

    MORALES: But Pollen says new research studies show a possible link between pesticide exposure and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. For a growing number of consumers that's all the more reason to buy organic or local. From your farm stand and grocery store to the dinner table, what was a billion-dollar-a-year industry in 1990 is now more than $26 billion a year. Organics cost more to cultivate, and that high demand also adds to the price tag. So when to spend your hard-earned money on organic food ?

    Mr. POLLEN: Foods that have a very delicate skin that you eat like grapes, like strawberries, like peaches, like apples, that's a good investment.

    MORALES: The nonprofit Environmental Working Group has a list they call the dirty dozen, nonorganic fruits and vegetables that often carry high levels of pesticide residues.

    MORALES: Save on the foods you peel. They generally have the lowest pesticide residue . And Pollen recommends organic dairy, especially for pregnant women and kids. Chef Jeremy Bearman of New York 's Rouge Tomate restaurant bases his menu entirely on sustainable, mainly organic foods .

    Mr. JEREMY BEARMAN: So you have more farms doing it, more restaurants using the product. Becomes easier for everybody, and I think everybody wins at the end.

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