IFM Interview on Environmental Toxins & Chronic Disease

The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) interviews Dr Joseph Pizzorno, a Naturopathic Doctor and founding president of Bastyr Unviersity, school for Naturopathic Medicine.  Click here to listen to his full interview or read below for the key take-away messages.

Diabetes, Autoimmunity & Chronic Disease

There has been an alarming increase in chronic diseases such as diabetes in the past decade. While dietary factors like sugar consumption has played a key role in the diabetes epidemic, exposure to environmental toxins is a much better correlate of the data.

“I would assert that about 90% of the diabetes epidemic is due entirely to environmental toxins.” –Dr. Pizzorno

In his years of experience, Dr Pizzorno notes that obese people only have an increased risk of diabetes when they have a higher level of environmental toxins, suggesting we have been overlooking the effects of toxins from our environment.

A similar story can be seen in autoimmune diseases with Dr Pizzorno estimating that 20% of Rheumatoid Arthritis cases come from PCB exposure (a common toxin found in electrical waste and contaminated water).  How can environmental contaminants lead to autoimmune disease? Dr Pizzorno explains that when the toxin binds to our tissues, the tissue is rendered “abnormal” and the immune system begins making antibodies to target that tissue. Therefore, the more toxins that are stored in our tissue, the more likely you are to develop an autoimmune disease. What is also alarming is that the half-life for PCBs is 3-25 years, meaning once they are in the body they are very hard to remove.

As such, for patients with any chronic disease Dr Pizzorno always checks the following:

  1. Nutritional status
  2. Environmental toxin status
  3. Genetic susceptibility

“When I talk to doctors, I say to them, “Every patient with chronic disease, you must check them for toxins.” –Dr. Pizzorno

Heavy Metals

Worst Heavy Metals

In Dr Pizzorno’s experience, these are the worst heavy metals for health:

  1. Arsenic
  2. Lead
  3. Mercury
  4. Cadmium

Through his research he was surprised at just how harmful arsenic is – it essentially poisons the beta-cells of the pancreas, which can lead to diabetes, and damages the structure of our DNA leading to a host of chronic diseases.

Measuring Heavy Metals & Toxins

The standard of care of heavy metal testing is blood and urine levels. Unfortunately, with these tests they typically indicate current exposure more than the heavy metal load on the body. Hair analysis is good for monitoring detoxification but it may miss those few who have genetic variations that cause them not to excrete heavy metals through their hair. Dr Pizzorno recommends using chelating agents which pull heavy metals out of tissues to get a better view of how much is being stored. This can also be called a provoked urine test*.

*Note: We offer this testing at LifeClinic

Detoxification & Diet Notes

For heavy metal detoxification Dr Pizzorno recommends the following steps:

  1. Uncover the sources of exposure and work to eliminating or minimizing these
  2. Support the body to excrete toxins naturally, for example increasing fiber intake
  3. Increase glutathione production of the body
  4. Support detoxification with other nutrients like vitamin C
  5. Implement strategies specific to which toxins are elevated

In terms of diet, Dr Pizzorno is a big believer in a balanced and diverse diet that is free from contaminants and has a high level of nutrients. He also advocates for a high fiber diet, which is essential for natural detoxification. Without adequate fiber, which is a common pitfall of the ketogenic diet, heavy metals processed by the liver simply become reabsorbed back into the body if not excreted. Lastly, Dr Pizzorno warns against farmed fish stating it as “the worst possible food for people to eat” due to its high PCB content.


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