Wellness: Bad Stress: Pollution – Air, Food, Water, and Plastics

I used to be in the camp of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” However, one argument changed my mind — the pollution load of modern life far surpasses the context in which our bodies evolved. Pollution is all around us. This isn’t inherently bad because our bodies have an innate ability to detox, but reducing major sources of pollution in our lives can keep our detox systems from becoming overloaded. In addition, we might be better or worse at detoxing than others based on genes, lifestyle, and other stressors.

When I started learning about pollution, I felt quite overwhelmed. I read The Genius Life by Max Lugavere, which he wrote after his mom developed early-onset dementia and he began uncovering lifestyle factors that likely contributed. He also has a podcast by the same name. Only some of the book is about pollution, but there are chemicals, mold, and other toxic substances in everything from pesticides and processing agents in food, contaminants in water, particles in the air that are so small they can cross the blood-brain barrier, chemicals in our hygiene products, and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in our furniture and carpets. This list is quite formidable, but the recommendations are much more reasonable. The trick is to remember that our bodies can detox, so you don’t have to optimize everything.

Below are the things that I chose to focus on to reduce pollution load.

Rule 1: Air: I use air purifiers in my house.

Because I spend most of my time in my house (8 hours sleeping alone), I focus on cleaning the air in my house. I use an air purifier that has both a HEPA filter (MERV rating 12+) to capture small airborne particles and a VOC filter. I have one AirDoctor 3000 centrally located in my living space and one in my bedroom. Of course, since the onset of COVID, many workplaces also use HEPA filters. I also minimize using my gas stove and opt for my Instapot when things need to cook for more than 30 minutes.

Rule 2: Food: I eat mostly organic, including animal products.

While pesticides/herbicides/fungicides/all the -cides that they spray on crops aren’t designed to harm humans, the main problem seems to be that they harm our gut microbiome. A weakened gut microbiome has all sorts of negative effects on us. Organic produce is grown with much fewer of these products, but the common complaint is that it is expensive. When it comes to health, I justify the expense with the axiom that if you don’t pay for it now, you’ll pay for it later in healthcare costs. However, I don’t get everything organic. A useful tool for deciding is the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen list published each year based on testing. The dirty dozen should be prioritized for organic, and I don’t bother with organic for the clean fifteen. I also prioritize organic eggs and meat so that the animals aren’t fed produce covered in -cides that become concentrated in animal products.

Rule 3: Hormone disruptors: I check that hygiene products don’t have phthalates or parabens, and I avoid eating or drinking from heated plastics.

Phthalates, parabens, and BPA leaked from heated plastic are all hormone disruptors. They act like estrogen in the body, which is particularly harmful to women. Luckily, people have become wise to this effect and many mainstream hygiene products don’t use phthalates or parabens anymore. BPAs in plastics have largely been replaced with BPSs, but there’s no good evidence that they’re better. For this reason, I avoid heating or eating hot food or drinks from plastic containers or plastic-lined cups, like disposable coffee cups. I also avoid drinks from plastic bottles or cans (which are often lined with plastic) because it’s hard to tell how many hours they’ve sat in a hot delivery truck.

Rule 4: Water: I installed an under-the-sink water filtration system.

Given that tap water isn’t always reliable and drinking from plastic bottles is potentially problematic, I have an at-home filter system, AquaTru. Even if tap water isn’t that bad, the tradeoff was worth it given how much water we consume each day and that the system is relatively inexpensive.

As I said before, the goal isn’t to eliminate all pollution from your life but to avoid overloading your detox system. As such, most experts suggest getting started with one area, like air, food, or water, and making steps in the right direction rather than trying to overhaul your life at once. For more information, I like the info that Max Lugavere provides. As a former journalist, he’s always well-researched and easy to understand. For a starting point, check out this episode of the UnPilled Podcast with Dr. Jill Carnahan as a guest.

For more blog posts about wellness, return to the wellness series page.

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