This article is part of an ongoing series, where we cover different causes, testing methods, and treatment protocols for Cognitive Decline. Learn more here.
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Toxins: Understanding the Risk for Cognitive Decline
In today’s world, we are all exposed to some level of toxins. These appear in our food, water, air, as well as in everyday items found around the home such as lotions, cleaning supplies, furnishings, and building materials. We’re not talking about high dose toxin exposure here; these exposure levels aren’t typically enough to lead to acute symptoms. However, research has shown that low-dose exposure over long periods of time can add up, eventually contributing to disease.
Some of us are more vulnerable to this effect than others – in fact, there is much individual variability in our body’s own detoxification pathways that would normally help us clear these toxins. Genetics and nutrient status are two examples of factors that can reduce our ability to detoxify efficiently.
Researchers have linked low-level toxin exposure to many diseases including cancer, cardiovascular, and kidney disease. Our focus in this article, however, will be on the growing body of medical literature that demonstrates that certain toxins increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
We’ll get to how to reduce your exposure to these below, but first let’s start with understanding the top six specific offenders:
Elemental and methylmercury are metals known to be toxic to the nervous system in situations of acute exposure. Symptoms include memory loss and cognitive dysfunction. Since methylmercury can bioaccumulate in living organisms, some scientists hypothesize that low-level exposures that accumulate over time can have similar effects.
Though researchers are investigating the exact mechanism by which chronic, low-level mercury exposure might affect memory, some studies found blood levels of mercury to be increased in patients with Alzheimer’s disease compared to those without the disease. In animals, scientists have demonstrated that mercury exposure increases the level of beta-amyloid secretion and accumulation in the brain, a process associated with classic Alzheimer’s progression. Furthermore, other animal research suggests that high-dose exposure isn’t necessary for its effects to be harmful – long-term, low dose administration can result in cognitive impairment and damage to the areas of the brain involved in memory.
Mercury sources include dental fillings, contaminated fish, and air polluted from the combustion of fossil fuels and coal.
Arsenic is a natural trace metal found in soil. Humans are usually naturally exposed to it in small doses via food and water; however excessive exposure or accumulation has been long established as a significant health risk for cardiovascular, endocrine, dermal, as well as neurological (among others).
Increased accumulation of arsenic has been shown to raise the risk of cognitive decline. Arsenic is thought to block energy production in the brain, interfering with cell functioning.
Most common sources include contaminated, unfiltered tap water, inhalation in certain work or construction sites, and from consumption of rice and teas which seem to accumulate the toxin (from soil contamination).
Aluminum is the most abundant metal found on Earth. Because it’s so accessible and easy to work with, it’s used in many different daily-use products, including fire retardants, cosmetics/personal care products, over-the-counter and prescription products, food additives and fillers, cookware, food packaging, and even in water treatment systems.
Studies now show that aluminum impairs our central nervous system. More specifically, new evidence links build-up of aluminum with Alzheimer’s. A study published in 2008 followed almost 2,000 participants over 15 years and found that risk of dementia was significantly correlated with drinking aluminum-contaminated drinking water.
Lead is highly toxic if inhaled or swallowed. In children, exposure has been shown to lead to impaired cognitive development and lower IQ. Lead is a federally regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a pollutant due to well documented detrimental effects on public health. However, there’s some controversy on whether those EPA regulations are sufficient.
Children aren’t the only ones at risk. Adults with cumulative exposure to lead from environmental sources demonstrate a higher risk of cognitive decline. Some researchers even postulate that early childhood exposure may increase long-term risk through epigenetic changes that manifest in late adulthood.
Exposure is still possible through consumer products, food (from contaminated soil), building materials (including paint), gasoline, industrial sites, and water piping. Learn more about lead and testing your home here.
Mold & Mycotoxins
Mold and mycotoxins (which are toxic compounds produced by mold and fungi) are known for their adverse effects on human health. Mold exposure has historically been connected with asthma and lung disease, however, mold-exposed people report impaired memory and concentration. Researchers are beginning to outline the specific mechanism in which mold affects the brain, particularly in relation to type 3 Alzheimer’s.
Pesticides are substances that are used to kill insects, rodents, and weeds that may affect crop yield during food production. Most conventionally farmed foods are exposed to some level of pesticides. Other than through food, individuals who live near farms, golf courses, or other heavily landscaped areas also seem to demonstrate higher-than-average level of contamination.
In recent years, the evidence has been mounting that pesticide exposure is linked to rising rates of chronic disease, including kidney disease, diabetes, cancer, and cognitive decline. Studies have shown an increased risk of cognitive decline as well as rapid disease progression in those who had higher concentrations of pesticides in their serum (associated with increased exposure).
Plastics are generally organized into seven categories based on their flex and opacity. For example, type-1 Polyethylene and type-6 Polystyrene are petroleum-based and commonly used for making softer plastic water and milk bottles, and harder plastic food containers like yogurt and ketchup bottles, respectively. Type-7 Polycarbonate was used for harder transparent bottles like baby bottles and reusable 3- and 5-gallon water bottles but has banned in recent years.
Another category of chemicals that has been banned since the early 1980’s is Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), primarily used as plasticizers and in various industrial products.
Although many of the most dangerous categories, like type 7 plastics and PCBs, have been banned, others still remain in use while we contend with decades-worth of accumulated waste. They don’t break down quickly, therefore plastics made decades ago are still polluting our environment today.
Use of plastic utensils, food containers, wrappers, water bottles, linings of cans/containers, coffee pods, to name a few sources, can cause bio-accumulation (build up in our bodies) from the leaching of plastic particles into food and beverages. Plastics are known endocrine disrupters, contributing to hormonal imbalances. They have also been linked with health risk including cancer as well as neurological diseases, like Parkinson’s Disease and cognitive decline.
Reducing your risk: Steps you can take today!
Thankfully, there are a number of steps you can take to limit your exposure risks to these toxins and protect your cognitive function. They include both reducing your exposure, as well as enhancing your body’s own natural ability to remove toxins through a process called “detoxification.”
Clean up what goes in and on your body.
Eat organic foods as much as possible to avoid pesticides, choose whole (unprocessed) foods free of chemical additives and preservatives, and slowly replace your self-care products with “green” alternatives.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) Consumer Guides is a great resource for finding helpful tips, including a Shopper’s Guide for pesticides in produce, the Clean 15 & Dirty Dozen lists, the Safe Seafood guide for reducing mercury exposure, and the Skin Deep guide for choosing safe self-care products, including aluminum-free deodorants.
Upgrade your diet.
Include more nutrient-dense foods to enhance detoxification. Foods like dark leafy greens, cruciferous veggies (including broccoli, kale, and cabbage), and sulforaphane-rich foods like garlic and onion contain high concentrations of nutrients that increase our detoxification capacity. Load up on fiber and mineral-dense foods, which help trap and eliminate toxins through your digestive system. Last but not least, add cilantro, turmeric, and green tea to ramp up detox pathways.
Learn more about our HealthRESET program for more ways to support your body’s natural detoxification process.
Incorporate detoxification practices into your daily routine.
Epsom-salt baths, sauna, lymphatic massage, sweat-inducing workouts*, and dry brushing are some examples of practices that improve detoxification. Daily bowel movements are essential. If you don’t have consistent bowel movements, consider working with a nutritionist to help you improve motility and, in turn, enhance your body’s natural ability to eliminate toxins.
Avoid using plastic containers.
It may be overwhelming at first, but slowly start to switch to glass bottles, paperware, or eco-friendly and plastic-free containers. Always avoid heating or transporting warm food in plastic containers which may increase the leaching of plastic chemicals into food. Reduce dependence on plastic bottles in general, swap them out for glass containers you refill with filtered water.
You will not only be benefiting your health but reducing environmental pollution at the same time.
Check your home.
Switch your home cleaning supplies to more natural alternatives, test your water for contaminants, install a high-grade, carbon-block (not reverse-osmosis) water filtration system, and get your home tested for possible air pollutants including mold and other toxic materials).
Choose cookware that is free of aluminum and non-stick chemicals and reduce the use of aluminum foil, especially when it could come into contact with acidic foods such as lemon or tomato. (Check out this blog on upgrading your cookware).
Never stay at home when fumigating, painting, or removing/replacing carpeting, or doing other renovations to protect yourself from potential neurotoxic exposures. Choose natural home care and renovation materials from companies such as Green Building Supply.
Looking for more support?
Taking those steps above can take you a long way towards keeping your brain as sharp as you want it to be. However, when that isn’t enough, or if you’re getting stuck implementing them, leaning on Functional Medicine clinicians and the full Bredesen ReCODE protocol is the best next step.
Our physician and nutritionist team tailor intervention plans to meet your individual needs and to optimize their effectiveness. These precise adjustments are based on your unique metabolism, hormonal patterns, genetics, immune reactivity, gastrointestinal health, microbiome balance, nutrient status and more. Chronic infections, environmental toxins, and existing conditions are all considered and addressed as needed for their relevance to cognitive function. Certain interventions can be dialed up under the guidance of a qualified practitioner, such as the strategic use of well-planned ketogenic diets** for greater impact. Advanced Functional Medicine testing can be extremely helpful to uncover hidden contributors to brain deterioration.
When working with a Functional Medicine practitioner who combines lifestyle modification with this the FxMed root cause approach, Alzheimer’s risk reduction and even reversal of early-stage cognitive decline are possible.
*Always check with your physician before starting an exercise program.
**Ketogenic diets should be supervised by a qualified healthcare practitioner
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Sophie Wallas Rasmusen MS, CBP and Nutrition Resident contribution to this article. Sophie holds a Master’s of Science in Nutrition from the University of Bridgeport CT as well as a BA and MS in Anthropology from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark and London School of Economics & Political Science UK respectively. She is a certified BodyTalk Practitioner and Reiki Usui II practitioner. Her primary interest involves merging empiric and scientific discoveries within nutrition and health with ancient teachings and natural philosophies concerning living in accordance with our environment, all with the aim of reconnecting clients to their innate ability to heal. She is part of the Functional Nutrition Residency Program (FNRP) under the supervision of Dr. Fitzgerald and the senior nutritionists on staff.