As both a Licensed Acupuncturist and Functional Medicine Practitioner, I always seek to find the root cause of each individual’s health condition. One of the most prominent schools of thought within the field of Chinese Medicine theorized over 900 years ago that disease begins in the gut. Finally in recent years this idea has grown in popularity, even in mainstream publications and among conventionally trained medical professionals. Now we know that autoimmune disease in linked to leaky gut and multiple food sensitivities. However, this does not solve the question of why leaky gut, food sensitivities, and autoimmune diseases are on the rise. What is the root cause of the food sensitivities?

In the early writings of Chinese Medicine, autoimmune conditions were exceptionally rare. However, some modern scholars believe that these rare conditions were often categorized as being caused by either latent pathogen or yin fire. Today, we may regard a “latent pathogen” as a foreign substance that enters the body but is not eliminated by our immune system. Instead of being eliminated, it remains in our bodies, eventually starting a “yin fire” that originates in the area of the body between the two kidneys and rises upwards, and stimulates a flare-up of an autoimmune attack. Because our bodies are unable to completely eliminate the foreign substance (probably as a result of a combination of factors including genetics, stress, and subclinical nutritional deficiencies), our bodies instead begin to attack our own tissues. I believe that the abundance of toxic chemicals introduced into our environment since the 1940’s has directly lead to the exponential growth of the prevalence of leaky gut, multiple food sensitivities, and autoimmune disease, as well as overweight and obesity.

There are currently over 80,000 toxic chemicals approved for use in the United States alone, and approximately 2,300 new chemicals are introduced annually. Few of them have actually been tested for safety in humans. Toxicity experts are now beginning to learn that the effects of environmental toxin exposure are not linear; rather, environmental toxins have a synergistic effect on the human body. Indeed, many of the environmental toxins found to accumulate in fat tissue have been found to disrupt the human immune system, as well as the endocrine, reproductive, and neurological systems — precisely those areas of the body under attack during an autoimmune flare-up.

The fact that many toxins are stored in the fat tissue also helps explain why intermittent fasting and fat loss can cause so many individuals (especially women) to experience unpleasant symptoms (brain fog, fatigue, mood imbalance, insomnia, intense food cravings, etc.). As fat cells are used for energy, stored toxins are released into the bloodstream to eventually lodge in organs, glands, and the brain.

There are six main categories of environmental toxicants: alkyphenols, organochlorines, polychlorinated bisphenyls, organophosphates, plasticizers, and volatile solvents.

1) Alkylphenols

Alkylphenols, which include BPA, triclosan, and 4-nonylphenol, have been used since the 1940’s and are common in everyday household products. A growing number of individuals are aware that we are exposed to BPA through canned foods, plastic bottles, and plastic food containers. However, our most significant source of BPA is obtained by handling sales receipts. Triclosan is a common ingredient in mouthwash, toothpaste, deodorant, shaving cream, and cleaning supplies. It has been reported that triclosan alters serum thyroid hormone levels in mammals. 4-nonylphenol is found in PVC food packaging, emulsifying agents, stabilizing agents, and wetting agents.

2) Organochlorines

Organochlorines are ubiquitous in our environment because they have been used for decades as insecticides. They contain carbon, chlorine, and hydrogen, and the carbon-chlorine bond is extremely is extremely resistant to biodegradation. DDT, an organochlorine which has been banned since 1972, is still being detected in newborn babies and even in animals in Antarctica. Other organochlorines include dieldrin (an insecticide used on corn and cotton) and mirex (a flame retardant), which were both discontinued in 1978; heptachlor epoxide and trans-nonachlor (residential termite killers), banned in 1988; and hexachlorobenzene (a pesticide and fungicide), banned in 1965. The only organochlorine currently still in use is endosulfan sulfate, which is used as an insecticide on cotton, tea, fruits, vegetables, tobacco, and grains, and as a wood preservative on furniture and lumber. Organochlorines bioaccumulate in fats, so fatty meats, poultry, fish, and dairy products from conventionally raised animals are our most significant source of food-borne exposure.

Organochlorines are classified as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and have been linked to reproductive, developmental, behavioral, neurological, endocrine, and immunological adverse health effects in humans. NHANES studies have also confirmed an association between type 2 diabetes and chlorinated pesticides in a general urban population. A high level of exposure is also a risk factor for peripheral artery disease (PAD).

3) Polychlorinated bisphenyls

A special category of organochlorines called polychlorinated bisphenyls (PCBs) damage the immune, reproductive, neurologic, and endocrine systems, and are also carcinogenic. They’ve also been linked to lower IQs in children exposed prenatally. In CDC population studies, most individuals harbor at least 10 of 15 PCBs tested. These also bioaccumulate in fat, and have been found at high levels in Atlantic farmed salmon, old electrical fixtures, contaminated water, high fat dairy and meat, and in breast milk from mothers with elevated levels.

4) Organophosphates

Insecticides derived from phosphoric acid that contain phosphorus are called organophosphates. These are regarded by most experts in the field as being the most toxic pesticide to vertebrate animals. Organophosphates kill insects by inhibiting the cholinesterase enzymes of the nervous system, resulting in a buildup of acetylcholine. This interferes with normal neurological and muscular functions. Epidemiological studies suggest that exposure may be linked to behavioral problems, impaired motor skills, neurological dysfunction, and impaired memory. The organophosphates are used on lawns, ornamental trees, crops, and livestock, and to kill mosquitos, fleas, and termites.

5) Plasticizers

Phthalates, also known as plasticizers, are added to plastic to make it more flexible. They’re also added to other products as a stabilizer. According to research carried out by the CDC, we all have multiple phthalates in our bodies. In addition to plastics, phthalates are added to cosmetics, perfumes, medications, medical bags, and medical equipment.

Parabens are the other category of plasticizers, and they’re used in shampoo and conditioner, shave gels, cosmetics, personal lubricants, deodorant, and food additives. The FDA still considers parabens to be safe for everyday use, although recent studies have found a relationship between parabens and breast cancer.

All of the plasticizers are suspected for disrupting steroid hormone production. They are believed to enhance the estrogen receptor response, promote endometriosis, and impair male reproductive development. Some research has linked the plasticizers to obesity.

6) Volatile Organic Solvents

Millions of workers are exposed daily to volatile organic solvents (VOCs), according to research from the Occupational Safety & Health Association (OSHA). Many individuals are also exposed in their homes. The VOCs include: benzene, found in gasoline, cigarette smoke, indoor air fresheners, glues, paints, well water, and detergents; ethylbenzene, found in gasoline, paints, inks, varnishes, glues, pesticides, tobacco products, and groundwater; styrene, which we’re exposed to through styrofoam cups and food containers, cigarette smoke, car exhaust, and photocopiers; toluene, a common ingredient in paint, nail polish, stain removers, solvents, and gasoline; xylenes, used in the printing, rubber, and leather industries; and iso-octane, used in gasoline. Those who work in salons, as well as office workers and teachers who use photocopiers regularly, are considered at high risk for VOC exposure. Since car exhaust is also a major source of exposure, people who exercise outdoors near traffic or ride their bike to work are also at high risk.

One thing for certain is that there is no “safe” level of exposure for compounds that were primarily made to kill certain species of animals. (Wouldn’t you agree that if a substance is powerful enough to damage the reproductive system of a roach, it must also be a toxin to other forms of life as well?) We also know that the number of different pollutants in your body, in addition to the amounts, play a role in how these toxins will affect your health. While you can decrease your exposure to dangerous chemicals by choosing organic foods especially when consuming animal fats, diffusing essential oils instead of using artificial air fresheners, not handling sales receipts, and avoiding toxic workplaces, there is no way to completely avoid exposure to these ubiquitous compounds.

If you suspect chemical exposure has played a causative role in your food sensitivities, leaky gut, or autoimmune condition, it can be very useful to work with a practitioner who is knowledgeable about the different environmental toxins, how to test for them, and how to help the body to safely eliminate them by upregulating phase 2 and phase 3 detoxification. You can also go to scorecard.org to see which chemicals are being released in your neighborhood. If you know which chemicals you test highest for, you can implement a targeted strategy for eliminating those first.

This blog post is just a very brief overview of the different environmental toxins. There are specific side effects that are associated with each toxicant, based on the area of the body that they target as well as animal studies, epidemiological studies, and clinical reports. Eating a nutrient-dense diet rich in B vitamins, protein, cruciferous veggies, and fats from clean sources is a good first step towards mitigating the harmful effects of toxins if you are currently in good health. After you find out which chemicals are at the root of your condition — based on thorough serum blood and urine lab testing — you can take a more targeted approach directed towards detoxification of each toxicant with specific nutraceuticals and medical foods. Reputable lab tests are sometimes covered by health insurance or Medicare when ordered through a licensed functional medicine practitioner.