Do you get dizzy entering a scented candle store, or does one glass of chardonnay give you a splitting headache—even the next day? After pumping gasoline into your car, are you nauseous for hours? If so, it may not be your fault. Many of us are sensitive to chemicals, certain drugs, and even natural substances to a far greater degree than our friends and family.
Everything that we inhale, touch, eat, or drink has to be metabolized through complex systems in our bodies and then excreted. This is our amazing detoxification system. For some of us, we do this very efficiently—getting rid of the toxins and waste products that this process leaves behind—but for others, strong odors, smoke, or even pleasant perfumes can make us feel sick and out of sorts for days. If this sounds familiar, you can blame your genes. Your DNA directs how your body manages to detoxify all the things you come into contact with on a daily basis.
Some people are simply more sensitive than others.
The detox systems in our body can be broken down into two stages called phase one and phase two. Most of these reactions occur in our liver, making it a very important organ to take care of. You can think of the first phase as the time when we break down toxins, chemicals, and even our own hormones into smaller bits that are generally soluble in water but also more chemically reactive and toxic to our body. There are about eight different enzyme families that control this phase and the activity of these enzymes are controlled by our genetic makeup, which can either make us better at breaking things down, or slower. Depending on your genes, you may find yourself becoming more sensitive to certain drugs, foods, or even odors.
The second part of detox also occurs in the liver and involves five more steps. This is when your body takes those reactive intermediate toxins, neutralizes them to make them less dangerous, and packages them up for excretion from the body. Both of these steps require a lot of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals to work smoothly. There are several well-known genetic variants in certain individuals that also make these pathways less effective. And if you don’t excrete these toxins out of the body effectively, they will hang around and cause adverse symptoms when you're exposed to them.
There's a lot you can do to support detoxification.
So, now that you know this, what can you do? You can’t change your genes, but there are a few nutritional and supplemental hacks to support these detox systems and work around the problem.
1. Be wary of the summer BBQ.
You know the delicious smell of a smoky BBQ in the summer? Well, charbroiled meats might smell good to some but once ingested the HCAs (polycyclic amines) found in that grilled hamburger or steak can be very harmful—even carcinogenic. However, if you add some rosemary herb to the meat it can help prevent the carcinogenic effect. Rosemary contains a powerful antioxidant called rosmarin, and even rosemary oil will do the job.
2. Don't ignore estrogen.
Certain compounds—such as BPA in plastic—have been removed from many plastic containers, but many other estrogen-like compounds abound in our environment and our food. Some people have trouble getting rid of their own estrogens and are highly intolerant to hormonal birth control pills. To support estrogen detoxification, taking a supplement called calcium-D-glucarate (1,000 milligrams a day) is a great way to bind up these compounds and help your body excrete them.
3. Avoid fried foods.
We have an enzyme that helps us break down one of the toxins found in the production of potato chips and French fries. Acrylamide, which is also found in cigarette smoke, is also made when we fry, roast, or heat certain foods. It can also cause nervous system symptoms such as dizziness, numbness, drowsiness, and confusion in high doses. The mixture of frying potato starch in oil makes really high levels of acrylamide. A better option is to avoid frying completely and instead bake and cook at lower temperatures. In addition, adding a supplement called N-acetyl cysteine (NAC)—a precursor to our detox superhero glutathione—will help us detoxify acrylamine more readily.
4. Remember that a smell can tell you a lot.
You know that odor in a new car, new carpet, or foam mattress? We inhale plastics (phthalates) every day on top of touching, eating, and drinking them. These particles come from airborne adhesives, PVC water pipes, off gassing of building materials, paper and office supplies, new furniture, car interiors, vinyl flooring and carpet tiles, body toiletries, dyes, and toys. As you can imagine, they are hard to get away from it, but an important step in phase two of our detoxification process can be supported to get rid of them more effectively. If you think you are sensitive to these substances, you should increase your intake of cruciferous or brassica veggies to two to three servings a day. This includes broccoli sprouts, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, watercress, radishes, arugula, collards, and kale. These all contain a potent detoxifier called sulphoraphane, which has been shown to help with the detoxification of these substances and even be protective against cancer.
5. Think twice about ordering that drink.
Some of us can break down and get rid of alcohol very effectively while others have genetic issues that make them slow to convert a toxic intermediate called acetaldehyde into something less harmful. This chemical is extremely dangerous to our liver if it’s not bound up with our body's master antioxidant called glutathione. How do we make sure we get enough glutathione? The best food sources are sulfur-rich foods like cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale, as well as eggs and pure denatured whey protein. You can take glutathione directly, but it’s expensive and sometimes hard for the body to absorb.
All in all, it’s impossible to avoid all the toxins in this world. But if you are particularly sensitive, it’s worth your while to add a little extra protection to your diet and lifestyle. To determine what your genetic predisposition may be, genetic testing for your detox genomics may be worth your while.