A Whole9 guest post by Dr Sult, medical doctor, medical educator, inspirational speaker & the author of Just Be Well: A Book For Seekers of Vibrant Health.
The short answer is: when you’ve tried a detoxification process on your own, and you’re not seeing progress, or when what you’ve tried makes you feel worse. For many people, decreasing the pesticides and chemicals they are exposed to will help them feel better. Some of us feel no significant ill effects from our dramatically polluted world. But that isn’t true for everyone. Some people are what I think of as canaries.
Why Some People Struggle with Toxins More than Others
At the turn of the last century, the most sophisticated early warning system in coal mining was a canary. Canaries are very sensitive to toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, which has no smell, color or taste. Because these birds were more sensitive than humans, they were stationed in cages along the mining tunnels, where, if the air were safe, they would sing away. But if they were silent, it implied that gas levels were rising and the tunnel should be evacuated.
In today’s world, it is the human canary in the coal mine that is getting sick—not necessarily because humans have an unusually high exposure to toxins, but because they have an inability to detoxify ideally. This may be due to several factors including genetic variations in their detoxification pathways, inadequate nutrition and poor translational changes (the regulatory steps that transcribe your genes from DNA to RNA and from there into proteins).
Over time, these people have had a slow, steady accumulation of toxins, even as their bodies work feverishly to distribute the toxins into parts of the body where they will do the least amount of harm, which is generally in the fat tissues. You see, it’s the fat-soluble toxins that linger; the water-soluble toxins are processed quickly and leave the body through respiration, sweat, urine or feces.
If a person already has a genetic condition that makes it difficult to get toxins out of their body, they are already starting at a disadvantage. If you then try to mobilize toxins, there’s a high probability of redistributing them instead of excreting them. That can cause what we call a healing crisis, which is frequently precipitated when people attempt to mobilize more toxins than the body is prepared to excrete.
Yolanda, the Canary
A patient like this came into my office about a year ago. Let’s call her Yolanda. She had a lifelong history of fatigue, escalating body pains and chronic constipation. As a child she was robust and active, but as a teenager she began having fatigue and then pain. Over the years, she had seen many physicians who provided conflicting diagnoses—none of which helped. She saw holistic providers and followed numerous diets and detox programs, but they only made her feel worse.
Before we could consider any detoxification treatment or any other kind of therapy, it was essential to find out what was really going on. Testing revealed that Yolanda had elevated levels of methylmalonic acid, homocystine and ammonia, all of which suggest an abnormality of methylation. (Methylation is essentially a biochemical process the body uses to turn things on and off.)
Yolanda also had abnormal metabolites of styrene and a gasoline additive. Her glutathione was low and she showed evidence of oxidative stress.
These results indicated that there were many processes in Yolanda’s body that were not functioning properly, even though it was working hard to do so. But before we rushed to a detox program, the first step—one that a qualified functional medicine doctor would take—would be to improve Yolanda’s gastrointestinal function, supplement her with nutrients specific to methylation, provide nutrients to support her glutathione production, and yes, reduce her total toxic load through organic and nontoxic foods, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, etc.
Once we saw improvement in these levels, we could begin a more aggressive detoxification program, which she was then better able to tolerate, resulting in dramatically improved health. The first three months of treatment showed about a 20% improvement. The second three months showed an additional 50% improvement, and the third three months showed an 80-90% improvement. Yolanda continues to work at continued improvement, realizing that the last 10-20% can be a long, slow process.
Most of Us Aren’t Canaries
Yolanda, and most of the patients I see, are the extreme. For the majority of us, the most negative symptom of a detoxification program may be a feeling of lightheadedness, and I don’t find that concerning. However, if you do go on a detox program and experience significant unpleasant symptoms, you may be more toxic than you think. If that’s the case, I encourage you to seek experienced professional help.
For most of us, the best way to detoxify is to eat a healthy, diverse, clean diet every day, stay well-hydrated, exercise regularly, and strive for healthy elimination. Rather than thinking about detox as a grand event to undertake on an intermittent basis, think about staying ahead of the problem on a daily basis.
Tom Sult is a medical doctor, medical educator, inspirational speaker & the author of Just Be Well: A Book For Seekers of Vibrant Health. Board-certified in family medicine & integrative holistic medicine, Tom is on faculty with the Institute for Functional Medicine and maintains a private practice in Willmar, MN. Join Tom’s crusade to change the way doctors treat their patients at www.justbewell.info. For more information on Tom’s practice please visit the 3rd Opinion website.
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