If you’ve ever read the marketing copy for anything wellness-related, you’ve probably been alerted to the fact that our bodies are full of toxins. Absolutely loaded with them. We’re basically walking toxin containers, continually in need of cleanses, scrubs, masks, soaks, and drinks to expel them from our pores, flush them out of our insides, and break them up wherever they lurk.
That toxins are ever-present—and bad—is made perfectly clear. Less clear, however, is what, exactly, these toxins are.
For the most part, we’re using the word “toxin” all wrong, says Pascal Imbeault, a cellular biologist at the University of Ottawa. “Toxins are substances produced by plants and animals,” he explains. (They’re also produced by our cells; more on that in a bit.) What most people think of as toxins — harmful chemicals that our bodies absorb through our environment or the food we eat — are actually toxicants. “These are called persistent organic pollutants,” Imbeault says, and they include things like fire retardants, pesticides, and chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, used in electronics. And unless you live far out in the woods and severely limit your contact with modern society, Imbeault says these compounds are practically unavoidable.
But exactly how one does one get them out of the body? This, Imbeault says, is where the bigger misunderstandings tend to come in. While Imbeault’s research has found that minuscule amounts of these chemicals can be found in sweat, for example, most people are ingesting many more toxicant molecules daily than they could possibly sweat out, in part because of the way many toxicants are stored in the body.
Some of these molecules, Imbeault explains, attach to lipids, or fat cells, which is how they get into our bodies in the first place. “Any food item containing lipids is contaminated,” he says. “The foods at the top of the food chain are the most contaminated.” When we eat fatty things like meat and fish, those toxicants end up in our lipid cells. And they aren’t all that water soluble, so no amount of time spent in a sauna will make a major impact.