In today’s world, chronic low dose exposures to environmental toxins can be overwhelming to our bodies. We face environmental and chemical pollution everyday simply by breathing, eating and living our lives.
As a Functional Medicine doctor, I’m incredibly interested in how these toxin exposures are affecting the health of my patients. I see my job as delving deeply into each person’s biochemistry and physiology and connecting the dots between someone’s symptoms and what is truly going on at a cellular level to cause the imbalances.
One of the questions I ask my patients is: “How close do you live to a highway or major road?” This might seem unimportant, but for some people it can give me a clue about their exposure to the toxins in air pollution. You see, among other things, highway proximity is linked to inflammation, which can drive many chronic diseases.
It is well known that air pollution is linked with lung diseases (like COPD) and cardiovascular disease, but the connections are more widespread than that. Air pollution can affect all organ systems in the body, can increase cancer risks and is generally associated with increased morbidity and mortality. More and more, I’m also seeing air pollution as a trigger or contributor to autoimmune disease.
Instead of being alarmed by this information, let’s be informed. Once we understand where our toxin exposures are coming from and how they affect our health, we can make changes to our environment and support our body’s detoxification processes.
Air Pollution Basics
Air pollution refers to toxic chemicals in the air that pose a health risk. Air pollution can be caused by wildfires or volcanic eruptions, but most often is a result of human activity including mining, industry, agriculture, fossil fuels and more.
Air pollution can include gasses (carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone), volatile organic compounds or VOCs (from paints, solvents and molds link to mold/cancer article), heavy metals and particulate matter. The smaller the particles, often referred to as PM 2.5 and PM 1.0, the easier they are to get lodged in the lungs and not be able to be expelled out of the lung.
Breathing in these compounds directly affects the immune system.
Environmental Toxins And Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmune diseases, including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and about a hundred others, occur when the immune system views a part of the body as foreign and begins attacking the cells and tissues. The prevalence of autoimmune disease is increasing globally, likely due to environmental factors. Interestingly, about 80% of autoimmune cases are in women.
From a Functional Medicine perspective, there are 3 conditions that need to be met in order for autoimmunity to develop:
- A genetic predisposition
- Leaky gut, also known as intestinal permeability
It is possible that air pollution triggers autoimmunity when the other conditions are in place. It can also exacerbate the autoimmune process once it has begun.
A 2019 study titled Emerging role of air pollution in autoimmune diseases links air pollution with autoimmunity by mechanisms that include:
- Inflammation. Air pollution can trigger body-wide and chronic inflammation, which can drive autoimmunity and lead to tissue damage.
- Increased oxidative stress. Air pollution can cause free radical damage to cells and the body, especially in autoimmunity, may not have enough antioxidants to balance the effects.
- Epigenetic modification. Air pollution may have the ability to influence how certain genes are expressed. To learn more about the science of epigenetics, read this blog post.
- Airway damage. Pollution and particles can damage the lungs causing an immune response. The lung may be an initiation site in the body of autoimmunity.
We typically think of long-term exposures of toxins as contributing to autoimmunity, however, even short term exposures to air pollution have the potential to make autoimmune symptoms worse.
Studies have linked air pollution to several common autoimmune diseases including:
I believe the research on this topic to be only just beginning!
How To Protect Yourself From Air Pollution
If you have an autoimmune disease or a family history of autoimmunity, or if you are interested in prevention and longevity, here are some action steps that you can take to both lessen your exposure to air pollution and support a healthy immune response in your body.
- Check the air quality. AirVisual is a free app that you can use to monitor the air quality around where you live or work. The numeric values and color coding makes it easy to assess if the air is safe, unsafe or if it might be unsafe for those who are particularly sensitive. For many areas you can also see the specific pollutants (PM 2.5, Ozone, NO2, etc.) that are contributing to the score. The app also predicts future air quality, which can be helpful for planning outdoor activities.
- Choose where you live wisely. When we are shopping for a home, it is common to think about curb appeal, safety and school districts, but air quality is an important factor as well. Consider living further away from highways, landfills, factories and other sources of pollution. I know that if you are already in a situation where you are close to a busy road, for example, it isn’t exactly easy to change. If you are going to stay where you are, definitely consider some of these other tips to help protect yourself.
- Invest in a high quality Hepa air filter. Small air filter units can be incredibly helpful for removing pollutants from the air in your home. Not only does outdoor air come in, but often indoor air has its own toxins as well that can come from carpets, paints, dust building materials and other sources. Some effective air filters include those from Austin Air, IQ Air and Quiet Pure.
- Repair increased gastrointestinal permeability, leaky gut for short. Leaky gut occurs when the junctions between the cells in the small intestine get more permeable and large food proteins, microbes or toxins that are meant to stay in the GI tract make their way into the body. This can result in an overactive immune system and autoimmunity. I see leaky gut, gut infections and other digestive issues as the root cause of many diseases in my practice and always recommend taking a look at these factors through Functional Medicine testing and personalized protocols to repair the intestinal barrier. You can read more about the 5R approach to gut healing in my recent post on harmful algal blooms.
- Support a healthy immune response and detoxification with diet and supplements. It can be challenging for our bodies to keep up with trying to eliminate all the toxins that our bodies comes in contact with from our the environment. In addition to avoiding what we can control, it can be helpful to support the body’s natural processes for effectively detoxifying. Here are some actions you can take
- My “Shippy Paleo” diet is a nutrient-dense foundation for wellness. This type of whole food, low allergen and low toxin eating plan provides the key vitamins, minerals, amino acids and antioxidants that support the body’s detoxification of environmental toxins and helps to protect cells from the damage that toxins produce.
My Paleo approach is also a helpful dietary starting place for anyone with autoimmunity. By eliminating many of the top inflammatory foods, including gluten, dairy and sugar, you can effectively cool inflammation and support the immune system with each meal.
- Optimize vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is a key nutrient that acts similarly to a hormone in the body. Among its many functions, vitamin D is critical for immune function. In fact, vitamin D deficiency is a risk factor for autoimmune disease and a nutrient deficiency that I find routinely, even in sunny Austin, Texas. It is important to have blood levels checked and then to supplement according to the results in order to achieve optimal levels. You can order labs for yourself through here.
- Add extra protection. I consider diet to be foundational and once diet is in place some key supplements can take healing and protection to the next level. In my practice, I work with a lot of patients suffering from the effects of various types of environmental toxicity. Here are a few of my go-to products for supporting detoxification and maintaining a healthy immune system:
Liposomal Glutathione is an incredibly well absorbed version of glutathione, the body’s “master antioxidant,” that works to protect cells from damage caused by toxins as well as support the body in getting the toxins out.
Paleo Detox Protein is a functional food – part food and part supplement – that provides more of the key nutrients, including antioxidants, that the body needs for optimal detoxification. It’s a great addition to your Paleo diet!
Clear + Restore Bath is a bath soak that combines clay, sea botanicals, salt and essential oils to help the body release toxins from your largest organ: the skin. Plus it’s a great way to relax and destress as well.
I find the connection between air pollution and autoimmunity to be an important one to keep in mind while working with patients and helping them to uncover their root causes to disease. The role that toxins play in disease development and progression is very clear as I continue to stay up to date on the latest research and as I care for my patients.
Luckily, when we can understand the roots of imbalance in the body, remove toxins and support the body naturally, we have incredible capacity to heal.