What comes to mind when you hear the word “toxin”? This term often invokes thoughts of dangerous poisons capable of causing catastrophic harm. And while there certainly are toxins that fit that description, most toxins we encounter are much more insidious and much more difficult to detect.
In fact, you’ve likely come into contact with dozens of different toxins this very day. What makes these subtle and stealthy toxins so concerning is that they slowly cause damage over time – often exerting their toxic effects completely under our radar. One way in which these hidden toxins can be particularly harmful is by slowly damaging your most important line of defense – your immune system.
Today we’re going to explore exactly what happens when your immune system becomes impacted by toxins, how these pernicious substances exert their effects, where you might be exposed to these compounds, and most importantly – what you can do to protect yourself. Let’s dive in.
What Is Immunotoxicity?
Your immune system is an intricate web of specialized organs, cells, and molecular compounds that all work together to protect you. This specialized system works in unison to keep your cells safe, defend you against potentially harmful invaders, and orchestrate healing when your tissues encounter any damage.
This intricate system must maintain a delicate balance – staying vigilant enough to launch an appropriate defense without going overboard and inadvertently causing more harm than good. In order to maintain this fragile equilibrium, your immune system relies on a finely tuned communication system – with your organs and immune cells secreting signaling molecules that travel throughout your body and deliver messages.
But sometimes this delicate balance and fine-tuned communication system can get thrown out of whack – triggering what’s known as immunotoxicity.1
What Causes Immunotoxicity?
So what exactly causes the immune dysfunction seen in immunotoxicity? In simplest terms, immunotoxicity takes place when a toxic substance alters your immune system – either suppressing it or triggering an exaggerated response. You see, there are certain compounds that can sneak their way into your body and alter the way your immune system is able to communicate and function.
Just a handful of ways these toxic substances can throw your immune system off-kilter and lead to immunotoxicity include:2,3
- Altering the expression of immune-related genes
- Binding to immune and endocrine receptors – dysregulating communication pathways
- Depleting reserves of antioxidants (compounds essential to neutralizing free radicals and pumping the brakes on immune-induced inflammation)
- Degrading immune barriers like your mucosal membranes that serve as the first line of defense against pathogens and toxins
- Disrupting the growth, communication, and response of key immune cells
- Binding to nucleic acids and proteins that foster communication – further hindering communication pathways
- Altering how immune cells present and respond to antigens – specific substances that elicit an immune response and trigger your immune cells to react
- Damaging the ecosystem of microbes that reside in your gut and collectively make up your microbiome which plays a pivotal role in immune function
So where exactly are these immune-disrupting substances coming from and how are we coming into contact with them? The scary reality is that just about all of us are coming into contact with immune-compromising substances every single day thanks to our growing exposure to compounds that have been dubbed environmental toxins.
What Exactly Are Environmental Toxins?
Environmental toxins encompass a wide variety of compounds – both natural and man-made. The term “environmental toxin” is used to label any substance that can harm or disrupt your health in some way. Let’s explore a handful of environmental toxins that can ultimately trigger immunotoxicity:3,4
- Aromatic hydrocarbons: Chemical compounds like dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) are widely used in the commercial production of many flame retardants, heat conductors, industrial chemicals, and pesticides
- Benzene: This industrial chemical is often used in detergents, dyes, glues, paint, and gasoline
- Cigarette smoke: Cigarette smoke – even secondhand smoke – contains dozens of toxic chemicals
- Endocrine-disrupting chemicals: Chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA), and phthalates found in plastics can mimic, block, or disrupt your hormones and alter your body's ability to communicate properly
- Heavy metals: An accumulation of metals like beryllium, iron, lead, nickel, and mercury are just a handful of naturally-derived environmental toxins that can hinder your immune system
- Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers: These chemicals are sprayed on many agricultural crops and can be spread far and wide
- Pharmaceuticals: Medications like cyclosporin, cyclophosphamide, and glucocorticoids have been found to have particularly disruptive effects on the immune system
It’s clear that there is an abundance of toxic substances that can potentially wreak havoc on your immune system. But you’re probably wondering how it is that you may be coming into contact with enough of these environmental toxins to actually trigger immunotoxicity.
Where Do Environmental Toxins Come From?
The unfortunate truth is, our world is becoming more and more toxic with each passing day. You see, thanks to the widespread use of chemicals that are loosely regulated despite their proven effects on human, animal, and environmental health, these environmental toxins continue to flood into our world at alarming rates. Some of the most common ways we are all exposed on a day-to-day basis include:
- Outdoor air pollution: Outdoor air pollution can come from both natural sources like wildfires or dust storms as well as from man-made sources like emissions from vehicles or the off-gassing of noxious chemicals from industrial plants.
- Indoor air pollution: Not only can polluted outdoor air get trapped indoors when we seal up our windows and doors, but pollution can be compounded thanks to indoor pollutants that come from things like cleaning products, air fresheners, furniture, and even the paint on your walls.
- Contaminated water: Water is great at dissolving things and circulates throughout our world – meaning it can be a magnet for a cocktail of pollutants ranging from heavy metals to pharmaceuticals and everything in between.
- Toxin-laden food: Not only is our food often doused in toxic chemicals like pesticides and herbicides but many modern processing and packaging methods can further introduce toxic compounds.
- Beauty and personal care products: If you scroll the ingredient list of many conventional beauty and personal care products we slather on our bodies on a daily basis, you’ll likely find a laundry list of toxic chemicals – which can be absorbed through your skin and delivered directly into your bloodstream.
- Plastics: Plastic is everywhere – from food containers and water bottles to grocery bags and even the clothes we wear. And the toxic chemicals used in these plastics can leach into your food and even break down into microplastics which can weasel their way into your tissues and leach out their harmful contents.
While it can be alarming to hear that immune-disrupting environmental toxins are coming at us from seemingly every angle, the good news is, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself and support your immune system.
How to Avoid Environmental Toxins and Support Your Immune System
While we certainly can’t avoid environmental toxins altogether, there are some simple steps you can take to minimize your exposure to these harmful compounds. And if you’re dealing with immunotoxicity or are just concerned that perhaps your immune system isn’t functioning at full capacity, there are some additional steps you can take to help promote a healthy and balanced immune response. Here’s what I recommend:
- Prioritize organic food: The food you ingest can have a major impact on your overall toxic burden – or the cumulative toxins floating around in your body at any given time. Opting for organic foods can drastically reduce your circulating levels of environmental toxins.
- Filter your water and your indoor air: Both the air you breathe and the water you drink can be chock full of toxins. Investing in an air filtration system to clean up your air and a water purification system to clean up your water is foundational when it comes to minimizing your exposures. Regarding air filters, I recommend checking out Air Doctor and Austin Air. And when it comes to water filters, I love and trust Boroux and Clearly Filtered.
- Switch over to less toxic personal care and cleaning products: Most of us use numerous personal care and cleaning products every day. As you run out of products, swap them out for cleaner, less toxic products. You can check out my all-natural lineup of skincare products by clicking right here and explore Branch Basics' non-toxic cleaning and homecare products by clicking right here.
- Assess your home and workplace for mold: Exposure to toxic mold can put a major damper on your immune system. To learn more about the impact of mold exposure and what you can do about it, head over and check out my mold archives.
- Show your gut some love: Your gut and immune system are intricately intertwined – when one is off balance, you can bet your bottom dollar the other is off balance too. One of the simplest ways to show your gut some love is by incorporating gut-supporting supplements like Spore Probiotic plus IgG to reinoculate your gut with friendly bacteria and Gut Immune to help bolster the integrity of your gut lining. Click here to read more about how healing your gut can support your immune system.
- Enhance natural detoxification pathways: Environmental toxins can accumulate in your body. So supporting and boosting your body's natural ability to detox is crucial to keep your toxic burden at a healthy level. Some of my favorite detox-boosting supplements include N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), Glutathione Essentials, Liver Essentials, and ZeoBind Plus. Learn more about additional supplements and detox methods that actually work right here.
- Get plenty of high-quality sleep: Sleep deprivation can quickly deplete your immune system and contribute to any imbalances. Ensure you’re logging plenty of high-quality z’s by following these tried-and-true sleep hacks. If you still struggle to drift off to sleep, it can also be helpful to incorporate some all-natural sleep supplements like Dream Powder or Sleep Essentials.
You can get all of the supplements listed above through my online store – and you can get 10% off your first order by clicking right here! To dive deeper into even more ways you can give your immune system a boost, head over and check out my article Powerful Ways to Support Your Immune System.
Ready to Tackle Environmental Toxins and Supercharge Your Immune System?
Immunotoxicity is a growing and often overlooked imbalance that will only become more prevalent as our world becomes more polluted with environmental toxins. But the good news is, while we may not be able to do a whole lot about some of the larger-scale pollution on our own, we’re not powerless when it comes to environmental toxins and our immune system.
Tackling environmental toxins and the health of your immune system is a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating the vibrant health and longevity we all deserve. The steps and additional resources outlined in this article are an excellent place to start if you’re looking to tackle the environmental toxins in your life and supercharge your immune system.
And when you’re ready to continue building and exploring new ways to support your health and well-being, be sure to head over and browse through my blog and my YouTube channel. They're packed with resources to keep you in the driver's seat when it comes to your health. And don’t forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter by entering your name and email address in the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn that everyday environmental toxins can have such an impact on your immune system? What are your favorite strategies for supporting your immune system? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
- Immunotoxicity – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics
- Exposure to Environmental Toxins and Autoimmune Conditions – PMC (nih.gov)
- Mechanisms of Immunotoxicity: Stressors and Evaluators – PMC (nih.gov)
- The Capacity of Toxic Agents to Compromise the Immune System (Biologic Markers of Immunosuppression) – Biologic Markers in Immunotoxicology – NCBI Bookshelf (nih.gov)
Has there ever been a time in your life when you’ve felt alone or unsure where to turn for answers?
In Unexpected: Finding Resilience through Functional Medicine, Science, and Faith, Dr. Jill Carnahan shares her story of facing life-altering illness, fighting for her health, and overcoming sickness using both science and faith so that others can learn to live their own transformative stories.
Dr. Jill’s riveting and compassionate exploration of healing through functional medicine demonstrates how to replace darkness and fear with hope and find profound healing, unconditional love, and unexpected miracles in the process.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.