What is a Toxin and Where Do They Come From?

In this second post of the detox series, we're going to better define the toxin.  While the word sounds edgy and dangerous, like this girl:

 (she's actually not nearly as dangerous as her cigarette)

(she's actually not nearly as dangerous as her cigarette)

the truth is that a toxin is ANY ole substance no longer wanted in the body.  This includes everything from carcinogenic molecules to basic hormone residue.  

For starters, a toxin can be broadly classified as either an endotoxin or an exotoxin.  Endotoxins are those produced within our bodies while exotoxins are substances that are ingested, inhaled, or absorbed from the outside.

Let’s unpack the endotoxin.

Imagine you’re running a 5K for your favorite charity.  It’s your first race and you’ve trained very seriously for it.  There are butterflies in your stomach as you cross the starting line that shift into something closer to steel by the time you reach the last half mile.  Your heart is thrumming, your energy is pulsing, and you pound out that last half mile, high on endorphins and success.  As you lean over your knees at the finish line taking deep, rapid breathes, you feel a gratifying burn in your muscles and the tickle of sweat on your back.

But all that feel-good ain’t free!  At the starting line, your body began secreting a variety of hormones in response to the nervous excitement you were feeling.  Epinephrine, the “fight or flight” hormone, started circulating in response to the nervous energy you were feeling while glucagon cruised your bloodstream throughout the race to ensure your muscles and brain had a consistent flow of energy.  By the time you sailed across the finish line, your cortisol was elevated as your body sought to adjust to the stress state it perceived.  

 

 These people can relate to your elevated excitatory hormone secretions.

These people can relate to your elevated excitatory hormone secretions.

Each one of these hormones was quickly built out of amino acids, lipids, and other molecules as the hypothalamus determined their need (it’s true; your hypothalamus is a tiny little dictator).  They circulated in the bloodstream until finding their target cell and causing the appropriate reaction.  Afterwards, the excess hormone residue was collected up, sent to the liver, and detoxified as needed.

But before you raise your post-race celebratory pint...

Let’s mention that the muscle burn in your legs because it's -you guessed it- another great example of an endotoxin.  Lactic acid is a substance produced by our muscles when we’re working out intensely and a byproduct of anaerobic activity.  It causes the burning sensation from a seriously worked muscle.  As the body recovers from the intense output of energy and oxygen is restored to the muscles, this lactic acid is shuttled out and sent to the liver for detoxification.

If you think any of that sounded scary, buckle your seatbelt and get ready for the exotoxin. 

Exotoxins are far more varied and often more hazardous to our health; while endotoxins are produced within intentional ranges in the body, exotoxins can assault us in exceptionally high levels depending on our lifestyle, environment, and diet.  They are substances that come into our bodies from the outside and the laundry list of sources is long.  Medications, pesticides, herbicides, food preservatives, and air pollutants are some of the more common routes of exposure.  Construction materials and home goods are often made with chemicals that off-gas for the first few months or years of use, while plastic food storage containers can leach bisphenols into our meals.  A quick google on “body care toxins” will reveal hundreds of terrifying chemicals added to moisturizers, shampoos, makeups, and deodorants that are efficiently absorbed through the skin and can wreak havoc on our health, often disrupting hormone feedback loops, feeding inflammation, and damaging cells.  While the concept of detox may be vague for most people, the chemicals we come into contact with throughout the day are anything but! 

Before we leave our toxin talk, there’s another common offender to mention.  In the process of neutralizing both endo- or exotoxins, free radicals are produced.  These byproducts happen when the detox catalyst -an enzyme or other substrate- attaches to the toxin and frees an oxygen molecule in the process.  The radicalized molecules must be neutralized by antioxidants for their own detoxification.  While this version of the free radical is an endotoxin, they are also ingested, most commonly from processed oils, but also in old, harshly cooked, or improperly stored foods.

And there you have it, folks.  That summarizes the toxin.  They're part of our lives day in and day out, and can range from an innocuous molecule of cellular garbage to cancer causing terrors, with everything in between.  In the next few posts we'll get familiar with some of the more common sources of toxins and what, exactly, to do about it.