Thursday, 14 July 2011

What does detox mean?

Ever seen the original TV series 'V'?

I'm not talking about that new-fangled attempt with the fancy CGI effects; no, the 1980s one with the reptilian aliens, or at least the very plastic-mask looking reptilian aliens, wanting to turn humans into food. Even Freddy Krueger was a Visitor! (or the actor Robert Englund at least). Not a pretty thought I know, but if humans were ever to be sold as meat, by modern day standards, I question whether many of us would be fit to appear on the Visitors dinner table.

Sorry for the opening paragraph but what I wanted to suggest is that most people wouldn't disagree with the fact that modern day life, whilst presenting us with lots of comforts and labour-saving devices and technologies including those which have saved and extended our lives, also has it's downside. One downside of our romance with industrialisation is that we live in a very different environment from that only a few hundred years ago in terms of our exposure to lots of different things as a result of globalisation (viruses, bacteria, etc) and particularly our exposure to the various natural and man-made, synthetic chemicals. I kinda hinted at this in my last post on chlorination byproducts in the water.

I could write a whole thesis using the volumes of research done on what we could readily be exposed to on a daily basis from cradle to grave but I won't. Instead, here are a few references (here and here) to strengthen my point. Some of the compounds in question are pretty scary in terms of their potential biological activity and also their persistence in the environment. Asbestos, whilst being a natural product, is perhaps one of the archetypal industrial bad guys. For many compounds we just don't know what the long-term effects might be following either acute or chronic exposure and even worse, how they may interact with each other to potentially produce a more potent effect.

I read what I have written so far and think to myself, I don't live too near an incinerator or a chemical plant, I don't live too close to a busy road, I don't smoke, how would I be exposed? Well, easily. I need to drink, I need to eat, I need to breathe and I need to travel - traces of our industrial society are all around me (and you). In one way or another I will be exposed to many of them over the course of my lifetime. How my body handles them will depend on what the compounds are, the amount I am exposed to (and how frequently) and whether my genes-biology can metabolise them safely.

It is perhaps with all this in mind, that we have witnessed the rise of 'detoxification' as a suggested solution to relieving our chemical burden. I say chemical burden but detoxification has been put forward as an intervention for many different aspects of modern day life including that related to diet, medication and pollution.

Detox (to those in the know) means different things to different people. To some it is a trendy term which is used almost indiscriminately to denote some process of removing harmful compounds via 'natural' means. I remember people like Gillian McKeith using it in almost every second sentence coupled with words like 'superfoods', etc. To others, detoxification has a more 'scientific' meaning as related to things like the important function of the liver and its various enzymes for xenobiotic metabolism. Whatever your translation of the meaning, its use is part and parcel of the modern day dictionary.

A few months back I happened upon a very interesting article by Stephen Genuis. Some people might have heard his name before, particularly his recent work looking at the co-morbidity of coeliac disease in some selected cases of autism (and what happened to autistic symptoms when a gluten-free diet was implemented as part of the coeliac treatment regime). The article in question for this post is here* and is basically a review of what detoxification is and the various ways that is has been suggested to be useful.

I am sorry that I can't post a full-text copy of the paper (copyright y'know) because it is a very, very good review of detox which covers everything from description to the various challenges for toxicology research to summarising the various detox methods and their supporting evidence. I have supplied the reference at the foot of this post for anyone who is interested in popping through to their nearest academic library for a look. Genuis does not mince his words in this article in either his review of the evidence on the size of our chemical toxicity, the need for 'proof of safety not proof of harm', and his support for the budding environmental health sciences.

There is a case study included towards the end of his review paper about a previously healthy woman who developed many of the symptoms of psychosis. She was previously employed at a printing company which itself suggested several things in terms of potential environmental exposure. After various pharmacological treatments including antipsychotics, she was assessed by a separate physician who discovered high levels of bioaccumulated lead. Supervised chelation to bring down her lead levels correlated with an abatement of her psychiatric symptoms. I know this is only one case study and is limited to the findings of this n=1 but it does quite nicely illustrate our whole body relationship with contaminants. I made reference to lead in a previous post on the suggested reasons why the US crime figures are falling. I perhaps need to look at this with a more critical eye in the future.

There are a number of sensible take-home messages from Genuis and his review of other research being conducted in this area including:

  • Quite a lot more finance and resources need to be put into investigating the whole area of chemical exposure and detoxification. An interesting study is just starting in the States regarding the possible impact that the Deepwater Horizon fiasco might have had on human health. Whether the financial onus should be on Government or the chemical production sector, I don't know.
  • We have a very close, yet very complicated relationship, with our environment (and our genes). Just look at the recent post on genes and environment in the autism research world.
  • With particular reference to one of our most sensitive organs, the brain, one should never underestimate how much our behaviour (and mis-behaviour) might be influenced by our natural and synthetic chemical surroundings. I should also point out that studying such a relationship is not easy.
  • Detox, a widely used (and abused) term, is a legitimate concept.   

To finish, a song from the Chemical Brothers - "the time has come to... galvanize".

*Genuis SJ. (2011) Elimination of persistent toxicants from the body. Human & Experimental Toxicology. 30: 3-18.