In this article:
- Types of Toxicity
- Common Sources of Various Toxins
- Forms of Toxic Exposure
- How Toxins Affect the Body
- Signs and Symptoms of Toxicity
- Medical Treatment for Toxicity
- Diagnosing Toxic Buildup in the Body
- Complications of Untreated Toxicity
- When to See a Doctor
- Final Word
Multiple biochemical and physiological processes are taking place inside the human body that make life possible. Basic intracellular functions require a conducive and stable internal environment to occur seamlessly.
In other words, the body has to maintain a healthy water-mineral balance, core temperature, and blood chemical levels to facilitate enzyme action, cell function, and generally perform at its best. The body has several built-in systems to maintain this ideal state.
Whenever there are any untoward changes in the body’s external or internal environment that could disturb this equilibrium, it automatically adapts itself through a self-regulatory and involuntary mechanism known as homeostasis. (1)
There are many different kinds of unwanted substances that are either introduced into the body from external sources or produced within the body during various biological processes. The liver and kidneys filter out these toxic elements from the blood, which are then excreted from the body.
However, this detoxifying action can sometimes become compromised or overwhelmed, resulting in toxic buildup inside the system. This toxicity can subsequently disrupt key biochemical functions, trigger various adverse reactions, and pave the way for serious health complications.
This article discusses the cause and symptoms of such a buildup and the various ways to deal with it.
Types of Toxicity
Toxicity is classified into two types depending upon the duration of exposure to the toxin, namely:
- Acute toxicity, which develops rather quickly after short-term (brief) exposure to the toxic substance
- Chronic toxicity, which develops over a prolonged period after long-term (extensive) exposure to the offending substance
In most cases of acute and chronic toxicity, the damage is usually treatable, but it can take a while for you to make a full recovery. However, some natural toxins are known to cause irreversible damage to the body.
Common Sources of Various Toxins
Several types of toxins are found naturally in foods as chemical compounds or synthesized in the body as intermediate metabolites.
Common sources of toxicity include the following:
- Celery roots, parsley, lemon, lime, and grapefruit are known to contain stress toxins called furocoumarins.
- Solanine and chaconine are naturally occurring toxins found in certain vegetables such as eggplants, tomatoes, and potatoes.
- Various types of beans such as kidney beans contain toxic proteins called lectins, which are destroyed when raw beans are soaked in water for at least 12 hours and then boiled for no less than 10 minutes.
- Linusatin, linamarin, and neolusatin found in linseeds, amygdalin found in peach kernels and almonds, and prunasin found in wild cherry barks can cause cyanide toxicity.
- Plants, water, soil, and the intestines of animals are often colonized by Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which release botulinum toxins.
- Mycotoxins, such as aflatoxins, are released by certain fungi. (2) Common sources of mycotoxins include nuts, dried fruits, spices, cereals, coffee beans, and apples, especially in warm, humid weather.
- Algal toxins released by certain types of algae often contaminate aquatic bodies and get stored in fish and shellfish.
- Metabolic toxins such as certain intermediate metabolite oxidants are produced in the body after alcohol intake. (3)
- Metallic toxins, primarily lead and mercury (4)
- Toxins are released in the body by certain drugs. (5) Drug toxicity may result either from overdosage or as an adverse drug reaction (ADR). It is essential to monitor drug intake and its effect on the body for drugs such as lithium since a therapeutic dose for one person might be toxic for another.
- Toxic chemical waste from landfills can seep into groundwater and pollute the nearby wells or leak into basements.
Forms of Toxic Exposure
Toxins can enter the body through the following routes:
- Respiratory channels via inhalation
- Gastrointestinal tract via ingestion
- Aerosol or droplets entering via the eyes
- Needles and injections
- Direct skin contact via touch
How Toxins Affect the Body
The accumulation of toxins inside the body can disrupt the state of homeostasis needed for the proper functioning of the organ systems.
Various biochemical processes are taking place in different parts of the body that are essential for survival. But toxin buildup can render the body’s internal environment unfavorable for these functions to take place smoothly.
Some of the major harmful effects of toxicity that occur intracellularly include:
- Altered biochemical pathways
- Cellular damage, particularly to cell membranes
- Genetic alteration or damage, increasing the risk of cancer
- Lowered bone strength and density
- Hormonal changes and hormone-associated diseases such as diabetes
- Damaged enzymes
Signs and Symptoms of Toxicity
The body reacts differently to different types of toxins, but some of the most commonly observed symptoms of toxicity include:
- Paralysis in the case of botulinum toxin
- Damage to the liver structure and function from aflatoxins
- Gastrointestinal distress such as diarrhea due to solanine toxicity
- Skin cancer caused by furocoumarins
- Autoimmune disorders, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, and celiac disease from lectin toxicity
- Nausea, diarrhea, anemia, headache, and depression due to metal toxins
- Hepatic encephalopathy or loss of brain function due to improper removal of toxins by the liver
- Platelet dysfunction, CNS dysfunction, or pericarditis due to uremia (increased urea in the blood)
Medical Treatment for Toxicity
Depending on the etiology, type of toxicity, and individual’s physical and mental state, management may vary. The health care provider may first determine the duration and source of toxicity via history, physical examination, and laboratory analysis of the blood and urine, and then prescribe the appropriate course of treatment, if needed.
If you have an acute form of toxicity, such as that caused by mushrooms, cyanide, carbon monoxide, botulinum, organophosphates, or cocaine, you may require treatment in the form of pharmacologic reversal or management. Following this, some lifestyle and dietary changes may be suggested to help treat the toxicity.
For chronic toxicity, the treatment involves a combination of medications and other therapies, developed according to your needs, medical history, and type of toxicity.
- Metallic toxicity is usually treated through chelation therapy. (6)
- Alcohol poisoning requires close monitoring of the patient’s vitals along with oxygen therapy and rehabilitation therapy. The patient may also be given vitamin B1 replacement with glucose for management of the condition.
- For drug-induced toxicities, it is essential to seek immediate medical care so that timely stabilization can be achieved. This is done by replacing the problematic medication with a more suitable alternative, but only at the advice of the doctor.
Diagnosing Toxic Buildup in the Body
If you have unexplained symptoms that fail to subside on their own, it’s best you see a doctor about it. The doctor will review your complete medical history, conduct a physical examination, and inquire about any recent exposure to a hazardous agent.
Since the spectrum of toxicity is so wide, it is usually difficult to pin the culprit without diagnostic tests that reveal the nature and cause of the toxicity. (7)
In most cases, the doctor will order the following tests:
- Complete blood count
- Liver enzymes
- Inflammatory markers
- Lipid panel, including low-density lipoprotein (LDL)
- Blood sugar level including insulin
- Metabolic panel
- Urine sample tests
- Urine drug screen
Complications of Untreated Toxicity
Toxic reactions can range from mild to severe but can usually be managed through prompt and accurate treatment. Reducing exposure to the source of toxicity as soon as possible and seeking care and guidance from a health care professional can minimize the risk of complications.
Allowing toxic matter to accumulate in your body by delaying treatment may result in the following deleterious complications:
- Severe allergic shock
- Compromised immunity
- Reproductive disorders
- Lung ailments
- Fits or convulsions
- Lung problems
- Hormonal imbalance
- Liver toxicity
- Fetal alcohol syndrome (8)
- Congenital defects
- Learning disabilities
- Alcohol toxicity
When to See a Doctor
Professional medical help is advised and should be sought if you suspect toxicity. Emergency help is highly advised (call 911 immediately) if you are experiencing severe symptoms, such as:
- Lapses in consciousness
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure
- Significant weakness
- Sudden onset of shortness of breath
- Sudden chest pain
- Severe, acute onset of headache
- Very high heart rate
- Uncontrolled vomiting
It is important to see your primary care provider routinely for general checkups of your overall health. Routine follow-up can identify and prevent toxicity-related occurrences.
What you may ask your doctor
- What do you think may have caused my symptom(s)?
- What preventive measures can I take?
- Will I need pharmacologic management?
- What will happen if I do not take medication(s)?
- For how long will the treatment last?
- Are my headaches triggered by this toxic reaction?
- Is my reproductive health at risk (for childbearing females)?
What your doctor may ask you
- When did the symptom(s) start?
- Do you have any idea what may have caused or precipitated your symptom(s)?
- Does your job involve handling or breathing in toxic agents such as mercury?
- What constitutes your daily diet?
- Are you on any medication and how long have you been taking it?
The human body is self-regulating and can eliminate its toxic waste through the regulatory functions of the liver and kidneys. Prolonged or frequent exposure to harmful toxins through foods, medication, polluted environment, or skin products may overwhelm the body’s regulatory mechanism, leading to the accumulation of toxins inside the body.
Once certain toxins reach a certain threshold, clinical manifestations of toxicity may ensue and cause damaging complications. The sooner you seek medical attention, the better the chances of disease outcome.
While different types of toxicity warrant different treatments, a good rule of thumb to reduce the toxic load in your system is to lead a healthy lifestyle. This involves consuming a clean and well-balanced diet along with regular exercise and meditation.
These self-care interventions make it easier for the body to get rid of the accumulated toxins and typically go hand in hand with the therapies and treatments prescribed by your health care provider.
How to Detox Naturally: 9 Dietary Tips, Self-Care, and Relaxation Therapies References
- He X; Hahn P; Iacovelli J; Wong R; King C; Bhisitkul R; Massaro-Giordano M; Dunaief JL; Iron homeostasis and toxicity in retinal degeneration. Progress in retinal and eye research. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17921041/.
- Kumar P, Mahato DK, Kamle M, Mohanta TK, Kang SG. Aflatoxins: A Global Concern for Food Safety, Human Health and Their Management. Frontiers in microbiology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5240007/. Published January 17, 2017.
- D; LNSMECAEK. Endogenous toxic metabolites and implications in cancer therapy. Oncogene. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32709924/.
- Jaishankar M, Tseten T, Anbalagan N, Mathew BB, Beeregowda KN. Toxicity, mechanism and health effects of some heavy metals. Interdisciplinary toxicology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4427717/. Published June 2014.
- Guengerich FP. Mechanisms of drug toxicity and relevance to pharmaceutical development. Drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4707670/. Published 2011.
- Flora SJS, Pachauri V. Chelation in metal intoxication. International journal of environmental research and public health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2922724/. Published July 2010.
- Pizzorno J. Conventional Laboratory Tests to Assess Toxin Burden. Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4712864/. Published October 2015.
- Murawski NJ, Moore EM, Thomas JD, Riley EP. Advances in Diagnosis and Treatment of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: From Animal Models to Human Studies. Alcohol research: current reviews. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4476607/. Published 2015.