Did you know that there are toxins in the food you eat? Most people are aware that the chemical pesticides and fertilizers sprayed on plants are toxic, but did you know that the plants themselves contain natural toxins designed to ward off predators?
Unlike animals, plants cannot fight, hide from, or flee from their predators. Their only means of defense is chemical warfare. Some plants cause blood vessels to constrict, raising blood pressure. Some cause blood vessels to dilate, lowering blood pressure. Some cause blood coagulation, interfere with transmission of nerve impulses, and some target specific organs for destruction. That's why we are able to use food and herbs medicinally, because they contain substances which affect the way our bodies function. However, even though small amounts of any plant or herb is unlikely to permanently harm anyone, there are some foods or herbs which can cause organ malfunction, cancer, death and birth defects. Toxins which cause birth defects are called "Teratogens".
Our dilemma is, that in order to obtain a plant's nutrients, we must also consume its toxins. In order to be able to eat any plant safely, our bodies have an array of proteins called detoxification enzymes whose function it is to break toxins apart and convert them to harmless compounds. Detoxification enzymes are produced by almost all our tissues, and in particularly large amounts by the liver.
In order to tell whether something is edible, we look at it, smell it, and taste it. If our senses say it's good, we assume it's edible. Our senses are designed to be on the lookout for dangerous levels of natural toxins and to perceive them as unpalatable. That's why we intuitively trust our senses with the job of telling us what we can and cannot eat. For instance, meat often has a bad smell when it is spoiled.
Although most of us develop detoxification enzymes that make it safe for us to eat a variety of foods, during pregnancy a woman develops a heightened sense of smell and taste. Many of the foods she used to enjoy eating now make her sick to eat or even smell cooking. The reason for this is, toxins are contained in the foods which can possibly cause birth defects in the developing embryo or fetus, and the mother's heightened awareness of these toxins will cause vomiting or nausea to prevent the mother from consuming these foods.
As I said, all foods contain toxins. This includes the fruit, seeds, stems, leaves, flowers and roots of a plant. But some parts of the plant contain more toxins than others. For instance, figs are a delicious fruit, but the leaves of the fig tree are inedible. If a person were to eat the leaves, the fig leaf oil would get on the lips and when the person goes into the sunlight, the toxins in the oil will be activated by the light and damage the skin cells on the lips, causing intense itching.
Another example is the coffee bean. Most pregnant women have a strong aversion to the smell of coffee. That is because coffee contains over 1000 different toxins, of which caffeine is only one. It is no wonder that modern studies of coffee, tea and cola drinks shows that they are implicated in causing miscarriage and birth defects.
One way that humans avoid building up harmful levels of toxins is through the shedding of cells. In humans, the surface layers of the stomach, intestines, lungs, genital tract, eyes and skin slough off every few days. In this way, cells that have become dysfunctional from having been contaminated by toxins or infected by bacteria or viruses are replaced by new cells. However, the process of forming a fetus from a fertilized egg cells is the opposite of this process. Instead of getting rid of old cells, the fetus is forming new cells all the time, especially in the first trimester when growth is rapid and formation of new cells is constant. It is for this reason that the unborn child is most susceptible to these toxins during the first trimester, and specifically up to about 16 weeks. After this time, all the major organs and organ systems are already formed, so not as much damage can be done to them by toxins.
How can our bodies know which foods contain toxins? A part of the brain stem known as the chemoreceptor trigger zone (CTZ) continuously monitors the blood and the cerebrospinal fluid for toxic compounds. When the CTZ detects levels of toxins above a certain threshold, it activates nausea and a cascade of related defenses, including vomiting if the toxin level is high enough. Nausea and vomiting can also be triggered by special toxin-detectors in the gastrointestinal tract and lungs.
Women experience nausea more than men because at puberty they begin producing a lot more estrogen, and this stimulates the brain stem area that produces nausea. Because women spend more of their time pregnant or nursing than men, it makes sense that their bodies would need a more sensitive apparatus for detecting toxins than men do.
Of all the foods that we can eat, ripe fruits contain the most enzymes and the fewest toxins. Grains have a very bland flavor and therefore contain few toxins, unless the natural oils in the grains have become rancid, and then they will smell uninviting and stale. You can almost always trust you nose and stomach to tell you whether you should actually be eating a particular food or not.
One food I would stay away from in pregnancy is potatoes. The potato contains a powerful toxin under it's skin, developed to counteract certain parasites and fungus which threaten the potato's growth. These toxins can cause birth defects. As an example, the number of birth defects per capita in Ireland is much higher than anywhere else, and they also depend heavily upon the potato as a staple in their diet. In the years when potato blight was the worst, there were also more cases of birth defects reported. This is because the toxin becomes stronger when the blight is stronger.
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