Graphic of the poison symbol.

Why do you keep hearing about “toxins”?

“Toxins” is an admittedly scary-sounding word, and these days, it doesn’t take much Googling to bring you to a website that tells you all about how everything you’re eating is full of them. Those eggs you had for breakfast? Toxic. Oh, you had an apple with lunch? Take cover, for it is poison!

What toxins actually are

With all of the misinformation out there, it can be tough to separate fact from fiction, especially when it comes to your health. So what are toxins? And do we need to be afraid of them?

The University of Maryland Medical Center defines toxins as “substances created by plants and animals that are poisonous to humans.” Toxins include substances like mercury, bisphenol-A (BPA), and cyanide. These may sound familiar – in fact, you’re probably so familiar with them that they may even be in your body right now, depending on what you’ve eaten recently. So if your body is full of these vicious poisons, how are you still sitting there on your phone reading this? In the (attributed) words of the Renaissance Swiss physician and philosopher Paraclesus, “sola dosis facit venenum.” Translation? The dose makes the poison.

Dosage matters

It is absolutely factual that apple seeds contain cyanide. However, unless you’re the kind of person who likes to kick back and relax with four hundred apples, they contain such little levels of cyanide that your body is easily able to expel it on its own – no detox or cleanse needed. In extreme doses, just about everything is toxic. Even substances as necessary for life as water can be lethal when the dose is too high.

Just about everything is unhealthy when consumed in too-large of doses, and it’s probably true that some substances we believe to be safe today will be connected to adverse effects in the future. Just consider the cases of leaded gasoline, tobacco, and high doses of radiation. But will one X-ray cause cancer? Certainly not. And if one X-ray won’t cause cancer, neither will an apple.

Other things to consider

It’s great to be engaged with your health and to seek out information, but it’s incredibly easy to get swept up in the culture of fear that’s sometimes created around certain chemicals. So when you’re reading an article about the wonders of a detox, read it with a critical eye. If the author is using the term “toxins” without much specificity, or without any regard to dosage, your skepticism is probably warranted.

  • Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH. “Toxins”. UMM. University of Maryland Medical Center, 2016. Web.
  • Chris Weller. “What are toxins?” MedicalDaily. IBT Media Inc., Feb 18 2015. Web.
  • “Frequently Asked Questions about Thimerosal.” CDC. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Aug 28 2015. Web.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Hyponatremia.” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, May 28 2014. Web.
  • JG Dorea, M Farina, JB Rocha. “Toxicity of ethylmercury (and Thimerosal): a comparison with methylmercury.” Journal of Applied Toxicology. 33(8):700-11. Aug 2013. Web.
  • “Statement on thimerosal.” Statement from the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety. World Health Organization, July 2006. Web.

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