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Toxins: Kicking the habit

“Pain is temporary; quitting lasts a lifetime” (Lance Armstrong)


What springs to your mind when you hear the word ‘toxic’? Warning signs? Chemicals? How about things that we put in our bodies every day? Your initial reaction to this would be alarm – have I been scoffing bottles of bleach in my sleep, you say? Toxins are hidden in the corners of so many things that we ingest into our bodies without even realising. Our obvious toxins are found in cigarettes and alcohol and we know that they are downright bad for us (unless of course you’ve been living under a rock for the last 50 years!). But do we know just how bad they are for us? And what other sneaky toxins are making it into our blood streams on a daily basis without us noticing? I’ve devised a wee traffic light system of toxins – it’s pretty self explanatory unless you were off school on the day of the green cross code but I’m opting for red for STOP, amber for CAUTION, and green for IN MODERATION. It’s quite a lengthily topic and to attempt to do it justice I’m spreading the article over two editions of Events, so bare with me!

Red alert toxins

I’m sure you’ll be curious as to why I’ve labelled these toxins so differently to each other. To summarise in a relatively blunt manner, the following are in my red alert zone, because if used on a regular basis, these can lead to premature death – and we’re not talking small statistics here. It’s no surprise when I type into Google ‘how many deaths a year...’ that the suggested questions end in alcohol and smoking!
Around 100,000 people in the UK die every year because of smoking – one of the country’s biggest causes of death and illness. And of course refined sugars and fats are directly linked to the obesity epidemic that we’re facing – we now live in a world where obesity kills triple the amount of people who die from malnutrition (approx. 3 million each year).  

Cigarettes

Every cigarette that is smoked contains over 4000 chemicals, many of which are a direct cause of cancer. These chemicals are similarly found in toilet cleaners, lighter fluid and in products used to kill insects. If I handed you some poisonous arsenic, ammonia, acetone (nail polish remover), carbon monoxide and a nice dose of methanol (rocket fuel), would you say, “Sounds good, give me a draw of that!” Heck no! But, shockingly, that is what is in cigarettes!
I sometimes wonder are teenagers fully aware of the chemicals that they are inhaling when they make that potentially life-destroying decision to become a smoker. I certainly didn’t know these things when I was in school. Thankfully my only experience with cigarettes was to try one as a teen, and it confirmed what I thought – it tasted disgusting and made every pore in my body smell like fags! There is no denying that quitting smoking is challenging – it is after all one of the most addictive drugs on the planet. They say that 4 out of 5 smokers want to quit, and some spend their lives hopping on and off the smoking see-saw to no avail. But as Lance Armstrong once said, “Pain is temporary; quitting lasts a lifetime.” There are endless support services available through the NHS to help you kick the habit for good.

Alcohol

Alcohol is definitely a sneaky toxin. It’s sneaky in the way that the majority of us will have a tipple every weekend, but we just have no idea how bad it is for us. It is more harmful, and more toxic, than heroin. Yes, heroin!
We, as a nation, dip in and out of drinking alcohol, because its sociable, it’s relaxing, and it’s basically worked its way into our lives as being fashionable. Long gone are the days when alcohol was for the men folk who would drink their ales and whiskeys down the public bar after a day in the mines (or the peats!) We’re now in an era of cocktails, wine and not forgetting, binge drinking. We think of binge drinking as some serious drinking on the town on a Saturday night, but simply drinking 4 or more drinks in a short period of time is sufficient for a binge. We are officially the binge drinking capital of Europe, and that is more than a little embarrassing! No wonder we get ‘nil pwa’ at the Eurovision!
Not only does alcohol increase blood pressure and contributes to depression, but it puts a strain on almost every organ in the body. What organ springs to mind when you think of alcohol – Liver? Heart? One of the most affected organs is the brain. Alcohol depletes brain cells and if abused over time can literally shrink our brain, leading to cognition and memory problems. And not forgetting the vanity in ourselves – alcohol sensitises the skin and can cause it to be red, blotchy and flaky, as well as giving it a dull appearance. If I ever drink spirits I wake up the next day with paper grey skin, plus a few boozy spots for good measure; and no amount of makeup will fool anyone that I’ve not been out the night before!
And I always wondered why. What is in alcohol that makes our body’s rebel in the way of hangovers and awful skin? Toxins i.e. chemicals off course! Every alcoholic drink contains ethanol – the chemical which is reported as the percentage of alcohol by volume or the proof. Alcohol contains different chemicals and concentrations of cogeners (such as esters and aldehydes) found in the fermentation process – compounds that are produced by the yeast as waste and left over oils extracted from the fruits or grains are used. In addition to this CO2 is produced, which explains the bubbles in many fizzy drinks, and not forgetting methanol and acetone – every wondered why a cheap spirit tastes so much worse than the more expensive branded spirit? It’s because the methanol and acetone hasn’t been properly removed, meaning your hangover will be much worse the next day!
Our livers take a beating on a night out, as the liver can only cope with processing only small amounts of alcohol at a time, which is why it’s recommended to drink a soft drink to every drink that you have. And what happens physically and psychologically when we binge drink? We wake the next day feeling tired, headachy, sick, confused and thirsty – and close behind can be feelings of regret, anxiety, embarrassment and depression.
I really don’t mean for this to sound like a giant lecture but I feel that as a nation we have lost touch with reality along the way and abuse our bodies to excess at times, because everyone else is doing it – so it must be normal. A lot of you will be sitting there saying ‘but I don’t smoke or drink!’ Aha, but the best is yet to come in my next column when I get into diet and caffeine!
 A way I’ve recently started thinking (when trying to change my own bad habits) is that when I make a conscious decision to eat a healthy meal instead of a take away, or go out for a walk instead of sitting in front of the T.V, is that I’m doing it because I want to live until I’m a ripe old age. Of course I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, or contract a deadly disease, but I want to live in the knowledge that I am doing everything possible to make my time on earth that little bit longer – and we know that we only get one chance to get it right!
So next month I’m going to cover everything from refined fats, to caffeine, to salt (I’m dreading the salt research... that is one awful habit that I, and I’m sure plenty others, need to address!) There will not be a stone left uncovered!
See you in June!

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