Growing up interested in science and medicine, Dr. Valencia Porter always knew she’d become a doctor. What she didn’t know was that, after working for several years working as a conventional physician, she would pivot to a completely new approach. Today, the double-board certified doctor is also a functional medicine practitioner and an author with a masters in public health focusing on environmental health. She has spent years working as the lead physician and educator at The Chopra Center, and much of her work centers around the health impacts of exposure to chemicals. Read on to learn about the risks of environmental toxicity, the different types of toxins, how to remove toxins from the body, and more.
The Journey from Western Medicine to Integrative Medicine
When Dr. Porter first started out in medicine, she worked in pediatrics and child neurology, with an interest in optimizing brain function and overall well-being. It was the early 2000s, so the wellness movement was just beginning to gain traction, but it hadn’t infiltrated the world of conventional medicine. “As a conventionally trained Western practitioner, I kept coming up to roadblocks because the only tools in my toolbelt were pharmaceuticals along with their side effects,” says Dr. Porter.
Still, her patients were curious about the alternative modalities they’d begun to hear about — things like homeopathics, osteopathic manipulation, dietary changes like cutting out gluten. “From a conventional Western standpoint, I didn’t know much about it,” Dr. Porter says. “I asked my colleagues and they said, ‘Oh, it’s unscientific. We go by evidence-based medicine.”
So she waved her patients away from trying such approaches, but many of them went ahead and tried them anyway. To Dr. Porter’s surprise, many times, their symptoms improved. She thought to herself, “I’ve got to look over there and see what’s going on, because they’re getting results.”
Just as she was beginning to see the benefits of alternative medicine approaches, she was seeing the shortcomings of conventional treatment. She was treating three children, and watching them deal with terrible side effects from their medications; one child almost ended up in a coma from being overmedicated. “That just broke my heart,” she says. “I thought, I can’t continue to do this, just continuing to feed pharmaceuticals to kids without looking at what other options there are that could be less harmful and more helpful.”
Dr. Porter took a step away from her practice and dove deep on different modalities. When she returned to medicine, it was at the Chopra Center, a center and online resource focused on helping people find health through holistic, integrative approaches.
At the same time, she was dealing with her own health issues — namely, a chronic Lyme diagnosis that came with horrible symptoms that seemed resistant to all normal treatment. In her work at the Chopra Center, she was helping lead patients through detoxes and seeing them get results from the process — despite the fact that the idea of “detoxing” went against her Western training. She couldn’t deny what she was seeing, and began to wonder if detoxification could help with her Lyme. “When you have Lyme disease or other biotoxin illnesses, if you have a toxic load from other toxins, it can impede your healing,” says Dr. Porter. She ended up stepping back from the Chopra Center and healing her Lyme through a holistic approach that incorporated detoxification. “It was a personal journey for me,” she says.
Why Our Exposure to Chemicals Challenges Western Medicine’s View of Detox
Dr. Porter explains that from a Western medicine perspective, the idea of detoxing is “completely bogus.” “We’re taught that if we have functioning liver and kidneys, that’s all the detoxification we need. You’re done,” she says. But as she watched patients heal through detoxification — and eventually healed her own chronic Lyme the same way — she began to question this idea.
Her medical training did address toxicity, but only with regard to poisonings and occupational exposure to chemicals, like people who work with asbestos and other harmful materials. What it didn’t address was what she calls a “chemical soup that we are swimming in.” Dr. Porter explains that, since World War II, our society has introduced around 84,000 chemicals into the environment, with very little testing. Even when there is testing, she says, it only focuses on one chemical at a time, rather than the cumulative effect of chronic exposure to chemicals in every aspect of our lives: our food, our personal care products, our clothes, our home furnishings, our cleaning products, etc.
“We don’t know what this whole effect is on our system. So I wanted to learn more about how the system worked, because I saw the results that people were having when they did these cleansing practices,” Dr. Porter says. She began to learn all she could on the topic of environmental toxicity and exposure to chemicals.
Soon she began to see that there was some truth to the Western idea that you don’t need any detoxification beyond what your kidneys and liver remove, but that this belief was outdated and no longer applied. “I would say that perhaps that was true a hundred years ago, but now we have all of these added toxins that we’re bathed in, plus invisible toxins like EMFs, that now we’re seeing are affecting our health as well,” she explains. “That can have a multitude of effects.
Her education and work around the harmful effects of environmental toxicity ultimately resulted in the writing of her book, Resilient Health: How to Thrive in Our Toxic World. She wrote the book to help readers understand their own chemical exposures in the modern world, how those exposures might be affecting their health, and what they can do about it to remove toxins from the body.
How Our Bodies Are Affected By Environmental Toxicity
Dr. Porter explains that there are three different types of toxins. And to understand the health impact of our exposure to chemicals, it’s first important to understand what those different types are and where they’re found.
First, she says, there are the things that come to mind when you hear the word “toxin,” the pollutants that contaminate our food, water, air, and more. That includes things like the PFAs family of toxins (found in things like nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, and more), organophosphate pesticides like glyphosate, and other types of poisonous substances.
Then there are toxins that occur naturally in the environment, such as mercury, lead, and cadmium. They exist naturally and aren’t harmful on their own, but if they get into our water, air, or food at high levels it can have a negative impact on health, Dr. Porter says.
Lastly, there are the toxins that our own bodies produce. “For example, if you’re dealing with a bacteria or a virus, your body has to take care of it,” explains Dr. Porter. “Foods that we take in, nutrients that we take in, sometimes these things can create some toxicity.”
Every toxin has a different effect, she says, which can make it hard to pin down if or how exposure to chemicals is at the root of your symptoms. She always does a full toxin panel (Great Plains Laboratory is her go-to source for toxin testing), but says that it’s important to make sure that the results of the panel match the clinical picture. In other words, the patient’s symptoms need to line up with whatever toxin levels the panel shows are off.
How to Effectively Remove Toxins from the Body
So what do you do if it turns out that you do have high levels of certain toxins? Unfortunately in our modern world, it’s almost impossible to completely avoid exposure to chemicals, but you can minimize it and help your body to detox more efficiently and effectively. Dr. Porter shared with us the best ways to remove toxins from your body, and prevent more from coming in.
As we say over and over again here at WellBe, food is medicine. What you put in your mouth has a direct and huge impact on your health, in both the long- and short-term, and this applies to your toxic load as well. “For me, food is medicine, and that’s the primary focus,” says Dr. Porter. “If you’re eating toxic foods and foods that don’t support your whole detoxification process, it’s going to be hard to get off that cliff.”
According to Dr. Porter, the best foods for removing toxins from your body are:
- Protein. Proteins provide amino acids, which help support the detoxification process. You can choose (organic and grass-fed!) animal proteins, or plant-based proteins like legumes, tempeh, or nuts.
- Vegetables. Veggies are packed with vitamins and minerals that are essential to the detoxification process. Dr. Porter says that leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables are particularly good for detoxification.
- Gut-supporting foods. Your gut plays an important role in eliminating toxins from your body, so any imbalances in your microbiome could impede detoxification. Eat a diet that supports good bacteria, including plenty of fiber, fermented foods, and fresh produce. If you want more specific guidance on supporting gut health, download our free gut health guide.
- Herbs. Certain herbs can support liver function, which is important because your liver is one of the primary organs involved in detoxification. Turmeric, garlic, rosemary, green tea, and thyme are particularly powerful herbs for liver health.
Diet, says Dr. Porter, is the most important part of detoxification, but other aspects of your lifestyle matter as well. In addition to focusing on a detoxifying diet, you should:
- Stay hydrated. Water-soluble toxins must be flushed out of the body through urine, so it’s essential to stay hydrated with clean, pure water.
- Drink alcohol moderately (if at all). Fat-soluble toxins need to be processed by the liver. We already mentioned liver-supporting herbs above, but you can also boost liver health by reducing your alcohol intake. “Ask yourself, do I want my liver to work on processing the alcohol I just drank, or do I want my liver to be supporting detoxifying my body?” asks Dr. Porter. “Because when you have limited resources, where do you want those resources to go?”
- Make sure you’re going number two! We remove toxins from the body four ways: through pee, poop, sweat, and breathing. “I tell people, ‘Make sure your exits are working properly, because you can do all the right things but if you’re constipated, that could be a real issue because those toxins can actually get taken back up into your bloodstream if they’re just sitting there.” If you’re not having regular bowel movements, focus on improving your gut health and definitely make sure you’re taking a probiotic.
- Audit your skincare products. “Sixty percent of what we put on our skin is absorbed into our bloodstream,” says Dr. Porter. “So we have to pay attention to those ingredients.” Because of this, it’s essential to make sure that none of your products contain toxins that could be harmful. For fully vetted, WellBe-recommended skincare and personal care products, check out our Non-Toxic Product Database (You’ll also find our probiotic recommendations there, along with 2,000+ other products!).
- Try dry brushing. Brushing your skin with a dry brush promotes blood circulation and lymphatic drainage, which is important to your body’s ability to purge toxins.
- Sweat. Sweat is one of the four pathways through which we remove toxins from the body, so it’s essential for detoxification. While you can certainly sweat through everyday activities and exercise, Dr. Porter also recommends sauna therapy — just be certain to bring a towel and continually wipe yourself off, otherwise all those toxins you sweat out will be reabsorbed by your skin!
The WellBe Takeaway on Environmental Toxicity and How to Remove Toxins from Your Body
The idea that toxins are everywhere can be scary — and rightfully so! But the good news is that there are concrete steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones from any deleterious health effects. Here are our key takeaways from Dr. Porter on chemicals and your body:
- Conventional Western medicine teaches that if you have a functioning liver and kidneys, you don’t need any additional detox support. However, Dr. Porter explains that while this may have been true 100 years ago, due to the proliferation of chemicals in our environment in the modern world, it is no longer the case.
- There are three types of toxins: poisonous contaminants, such as pesticides; naturally occurring toxins, like mercury, which can become dangerous at high levels; and toxins that your body produces itself when you are fighting an infection or after ingesting a certain food.
- To determine if you have high levels of a toxin, doing a test or panel can help. However, Dr. Porter says, the results must match your symptom profile.
- Diet is the most important thing if you want to remove toxins from your body. Focus on proteins, vegetables (specifically leafy greens and cruciferous veggies like broccoli), gut-supporting foods, and medicinal herbs (turmeric, thyme, garlic, rosemary, and others), which you can drink in tea form!
- Besides diet, you can support detoxification by staying hydrated, moderating your alcohol intake (or cutting it out entirely), dry brushing, sweating (whether naturally or in a sauna), only using clean personal care products, and making sure that your digestive system is functioning properly.
When environmental toxins could you remove from your life? How? Let us know in the comments below!
Watch our whole interview with Valencia Porter to hear her wild story of being diagnosed with and then healing chronic Lyme disease, why endocrine disrupting toxins are more concerning to her than other toxins, which toxin can prevent weight loss, what companies and brands she recommends when testing for mold and other toxins, why it’s so important to towel off sweat, what she recommends to people who can’t move out of areas that have a lot of environmental toxins, and much more.
- Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; Institute of Medicine. Identifying and Reducing Environmental Health Risks of Chemicals in Our Society: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2014 Oct 2. 2, The Challenge: Chemicals in Today’s Society.
- Rogers, R.D., Reh, C.M. & Breysse, P. Advancing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) research: an overview of ATSDR and NCEH activities and recommendations. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 31, 961–971 (2021).
- Hodges RE, Minich DM. Modulation of Metabolic Detoxification Pathways Using Foods and Food-Derived Components: A Scientific Review with Clinical Application. J Nutr Metab. 2015;2015:760689. doi: 10.1155/2015/760689. Epub 2015 Jun 16.
- Claus SP, Guillou H, Ellero-Simatos S. The gut microbiota: a major player in the toxicity of environmental pollutants? NPJ Biofilms Microbiomes. 2016 May 4;2:16003. doi: 10.1038/npjbiofilms.2016.3. Erratum in: NPJ Biofilms Microbiomes. 2017 Jun 22;3:17001.
The information contained in this article comes from our interview with Valencia Porter, MD, MPH, a board-certified physician and functional medicine doctor with a Master’s degree in Public Health specializing in Environmental Health. Dr. Porter was trained at USC – Keck School of Medicine, received the renowned Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, and was a research fellow at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. She is trained in many modalities, including acupuncture, Ayurveda, and herbal medicine, and worked for a decade as the lead physician and educator at The Chopra Center. You can learn more about Dr. Valencia Porter on her website.