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The Complete Guide to Testing Your Body For Toxins

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Do you detox and cleanse? How do you know if it works? I love being able to see clear results – here is what I have learned about testing for toxicants and what I want to share with you today.

Did you know that environmental toxicants are one of the biggest controllable factors behind chronic diseases in the modern world? This idea used to be very “alternative,” but now it is well accepted in all circles

Toxin or Toxicant

When we talk about various harmful chemicals in the environment, the term toxicant is more correct. I keep trying to train myself not to use the world toxin because, as one of my editors taught me, a toxin is a poison found from a living thing (like snake venom) – whereas a toxicant can be a synthetic chemical.

Overall, this idea of being “intoxicated” has left us with a vague sense of being unclean or contaminated. Luckily, it is also behind the valid desire to detox and cleanse the body!

Risks of Toxicants

There are actually many different risks when it comes to toxicants in our body. Some of the initial symptoms that we might be able to see are:

  • Weight gain
  • Autoimmunity
  • Brain fog
  • Digestive issues
  • Nerve tremors
  • Skin Symptoms
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle pain

Beyond this, though, are disease concerns from environmental toxicants. These are far more serious, and can include:

  • Cancer
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Fatty liver
  • Neuropathy

In Conclusion: The effects of toxicants can be numerous, from short-term symptoms to long-term diseases. They are serious, which is why we need to know how to test our body for them.

How Do You Know If A Detox Worked?

Let me tell you a story about myself. As a college student, I became very health-conscious. I lapsed on the habits I had developed during my junior and senior year of high school, eating carefully and exercising became less important. To no one’s surprise, I quickly started gaining weight and feeling miserable. During college, I became especially conscientious and careful.

Like most college students, I was also paying for my own food for the very first time. Three unique factors came together for me:

  • Trying not to spend too much
  • Trying to get enough protein
  • Trying (and failing) to find the time to cook

The collection of these factors led me to eating a whole lot of canned tuna – and I mean a lot. For several years, I ate at least 1 can of tuna each and every day (and often several cans).

In the early 90’s, I became concerned about mercury toxicity and started learning more about it. Along with my ridiculous history of tuna intake, I had over a dozen mercury fillings as a child.

When I finally was able to start testing myself, it came as no surprise that my mercury levels were off the charts. It is especially interesting that I did not even realize the ongoing symptoms that I was living with, until it went away as I detoxed from mercury. With each step, my mind became more stable – and it was wonderful.

Key Insight: We often cannot recognize the symptoms that we are living with, until we do a proper detox and get to start feeling better.

I have always been a fan of having clear information and good data. After all, the path back to good health can be nearly impossible if you do not know what you are trying to achieve and whether or not you are making progress towards it.

How Do You Know if You are Carrying Toxicants in Your Body?

It’s all about testing and not guessing! There are two main categories of tests – which I call “direct tests” and “indirect tests.”

  1. Direct Tests – these are tests that measure the level of toxicants in your body.
  2. Indirect Tests – these tests look for clues that toxicants may be present.

In Conclusion: In all circumstances, direct tests would be ideal for finding out more about the potential toxicants in your system. Some toxicants, though, are harder to measure for than others – which is why indirect tests can be of value to you and your health.

Toxicant Tests for Your Body Today

Now that we have a better understanding of how toxicants can affect us, let’s dive into some of the most popular tests. Remember, this is a comprehensive guide, so we are going to be covering all sorts of tests. Afterwards, we will go into the action steps you can take to rid your body of these toxicants today.

Liver Enzyme Tests

If they are in the high side of the normal range, it can be a clue pointing towards the presence of environmental toxicants (1) (2).

Organic Acids Tests

Organic acid tests measure various metabolic byproducts, including those that are made from the stress of environmental toxicants in our bodies. The good thing about these tests is that they are not invasive, rather they are commonly measured through urine.

The drawbacks are large, though, because they can be quite vague. Toxicants can play a role in organic acid changes, but so many other factors can also cause the exact same changes. Therefore, you cannot be certain that toxicants were the problem – which is a problem in and of itself. The other problem is that they do not identify levels of any specific toxicants, which makes it harder in terms of trying to identify what to avoid or what to address.

Hair Tests

These kinds of tests have been around for several decades. I see them less commonly than I did in the past, but they are definitely still in use. The reasons that they are still in use is that they are low cost, non-invasive and easy to do at home. Unfortunately, they are not particularly accurate.

Hair tests can be used as a tool to measure for toxic heavy metals, such as:

  • Aluminum
  • Arsenic
  • Antimony
  • Cadmium
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Nickel
  • Uranium
  • Strontium
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They have also been used in studies that survey exposure of various toxins within a population. As it happens, tests that are not accurate enough for individuals can still be used for populations – because of the random variances from one reading to the next may average themselves out.

That is fine if you are only concerned about how much of a toxic burden the population is under and you are not concerned about the individual. For our purposes, though, it is not a useful way to screen a single person.

Hair tests can also be influenced by ethnic differences, hair color and hair treatments. Overall, hair tests also measure levels of essential minerals, like calcium, magnesium or zinc. However, the amount of minerals in the hair does not consistently correlate with the amount found in the body.

Serum Blood Tests

There are different types of blood tests. Our blood contains watery serum which contains nutrients to feed the cells, as well as blood cells (like white and red blood cells and platelets).

Key Insight: Toxicants have the potential to circulate in the serum and they can be attached to the blood cells. When we go with blood tests, we have the unique opportunity to measure both of these things.

Serum tests are the most commonly used for toxins. In most cases, when a doctor does a blood test for toxins, they are testing serum tests. The advantage of them is that they are the easiest – most laboratories can run them and they are covered through insurance. They can also be processed rather quickly by most laboratories.

The drawback of serum tests is that they only really show exposure from the last several days. The most harmful toxicants do not stay in the serum for long periods of time, instead they migrate into more vital parts of the body body (such as the brain or the organs).

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In Conclusion: Serum tests are helpful to see if someone has exposure to certain toxicants on a daily basis. If someone has high levels of lead while being tested during the workweek, and less before the week begins, then we know that the workplace is the culprit.  

When it comes to tests, we often think in terms of false negatives and false positives. Serum tests actually have high rates of false negatives. This means that the test may look fine, even if you have a problem. Having said that, there are a high number of people that have abnormal serum levels of lead. Estimates have stated that 30% of the population may have unsafe levels of lead in their drinking water.

In Conclusion: In most cases, when one wants to test for toxicants, they do not just want to know the short-term implications. They want to understand how much has built up in their bodies, often over the course of a lifetime.

Red Blood Cells

The red blood cells may also be used to test for toxins, as can whole blood tests – which include the serum and the blood cells. These tests are ultimately better, because they show an average level found over the course of roughly three months – rather than three days, for example.

Key Insight: A big plus for red blood cell tests is that they also show the level of mini nutritional minerals and this data is both accurate and helpful.

These tests are also convenient because they are blood tests that can be done all at once. They are less likely to be covered by insurance and can only measure a shorter number of toxic metals (typically cadmium, lead, mercury and arsenic).

A big drawback about these tests is that many of these toxicants are not prone to bind up to the red blood cells. Even if someone has a large amount in their body, it may not look as bad as it is in reality.

ACCU Chem

Because this is a comprehensive guide, I should definitely mention ACCU chem labs. They no longer exist, after being recently acquired by a different laboratory. They offered tests for nearly any metal, pesticide, plastic or solvent imaginable. They also tested through serum, urine or fat biopsy.

Since many chemicals are resistant to being in the serum and end up in the fat, this may be one of the more accurate ways to test. However, it is impractical and no longer readily available. In the mid 90’s, a group of doctors and myself tried to see if we could do a prolonged fasting (36 hours) in order to make serum tests more useful.

The idea was that if you fasted for long periods of time, it could move out of the fat and into the bloodstream. We did testing after prolonged fasting and compared them through the results that we got from fat biopsies. Even with 36 hours of fasting, though, the serum test was unhelpful. Many of us, who were healthy and very conscientious about chemicals had surprise levels of toxicants found in our biopsies.

Urine Tests

Urine can also be used to measure for toxins and there are two main ways that this can be done – with or without provocation. Provocation means a substance is given to push chemicals out of the body. Without provocation, urine tests actually have the same limitations of serum testing – in that it will only show what someone is exposed to in a moment of testing.

Key Insight: With provocation urine tests have the potential of showing exposure from the distant past, which can give us a better understanding of the toxicants in our body now and in the recent past.

Mercury Speciation Testing

Different forms of mercury are found from inorganic sources. One laboratory, Quicksilver Scientific, has the technology to break down mercury into inorganic or methylmercury. This option may be helpful for someone who is not clear as to their source of mercury. The only drawback is that this test only measures for mercury and is less cost-effective.

There actually is a lot of controversy surrounding these tests, for reasons that have nothing to do with their legitimacy or accuracy. The reference ranges that most labs use are ranges more appropriate for unprovoked results. There also have been practitioners who have used very high doses of provocation with people for screening purposes.

In this scenario, nearly anyone will appear to have a burden of toxicants high in the green range or early in the yellow range. However, toxicologists know that challenge testing is a legitimate tool when the right amount of challenge agents are used and the tests are interpreted properly.

The problem with many toxicants is that they are harmful with themselves, but also impair the body’s ability to detoxify. Consequently, as people detoxify, they may get better at detoxifying. This means that they can be improving, even when the levels are getting higher. Over the full course of an effective detox regime, urine levels of toxicants are due to come down. Initially, however, they might go up – which can always be disconcerting.

Let me tell you a little bit about my experience. When I first got going in testing myself for mercury, my results looked much worse than the sample image. Thankfully, they came down to negligible levels over time.

These tests collect urine for 24 hours or for 6 hours. Many of us did comparison studies between 24 and 6 hours and found that 6 hours was nearly identical and much more convenient.

Tests can also be done after provocation only, or both before and after provocation. Few people have toxicants that show up without provocation, so at Integrative Health we do a 6 hour collection post-provocation for the best accuracy and the most convenience.

Action Steps You Can Take To Test For Toxicants

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Nearly all thyroid disease is driven by your immune system attacking the thyroid, mostly because it is trying to handle the toxicants inside of it. Your thyroid is especially prone to bioaccumulating metals, because of the pump that it uses to bring iodine inside of it.

Key Insight: The same pump that brings iodine into your thyroid, can mistakenly pull in many toxic metals such as cadmium, lead or fluoride.

There are many reasons to screen, such as:

  • Finding out if you have thyroid disease
  • Finding an answer for any fatigue
  • Dealing with chronic weight issues
  • Understanding abnormal cortisol levels

In Conclusion: The best option to test is using urine toxic metal testing, after provocation. You should be testing each year, as a baseline, and if you have a lot of toxicants showing up also re-test after a detox.

Know Your Thyroid, Love Your Thyroid

How much do you know about your thyroid? Did you know that thyroid dysfunction can be at the heart of so many issues that your body might be dealing with. If you have not been feeling like yourself, take the time to learn more about your health by taking the Thyroid Quiz today (3).

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Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet.

Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, cure diabetes, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.