Detoxing After the 2020 Wildfires

Dr. Cris Azzola, ND
5 min readMar 7, 2021
Smokey skies over San Francisco seen from Dolores Park on August 19, 2020
Smokey skies over San Francisco seen from Dolores Park on August 19, 2020

It may seem like a long time since the record-breaking wildfires of 2020, but many of us will have been exposed to far more environmental pollutants than a typical fire season. The smoke contained a variety of chemicals which expose us to a wide range of systemic effects. Of course, masks and home air filters may help a great deal, but it’s very challenging to limit exposure entirely.

So, what can we do? I’m going to provide an overview of how to keep our bodies’ natural “detox pathways” in good shape so we can cope better with additional environmental chemical exposures. By keeping these systems flowing, we can eliminate irritants and make space for nutrients and healing to take place. This approach is health promoting in general and good practice. It becomes really critical when we’ve been exposed to unusual levels of pollutants.

Smoke impact

A little exposure to smoke, like at a campfire or bonfire, is often well tolerated and can lead many of us to underestimate how dangerous prolonged exposure is, or exposure to smoke filled with chemicals. In addition to irritating the respiratory system, smoke can also affect the hormonal, immune, cardiovascular and nervous systems which are especially sensitive to environmental chemical irritation and damage.

What’s in the smoke?

Wildfire smoke can include gasses such as carbon monoxide, microscopic solids or liquid droplets called particulate matter, organic chemicals such as benzene, trace minerals and thousands of other compounds. The thing to remember is that burnt wood particles are not the only thing that blanketed the skies — chemicals from scorched homes, electronics, roads or cars came along with the wood smoke as the forests burned.

What can we do to help remove these toxins from our systems?

“Detox pathways” are simply our natural systems for eliminating waste and toxins. If we keep these systems running optimally, we set ourselves up to be able to more efficiently deal with additional and unexpected exposures. Many of us take these for granted and don’t realize how much we can do to improve their function and efficiency. The detox pathways I’m going to describe are:

1. Digestive tract (stool)

2. Urinary tract (urine)

3. Skin (sweat)

1. Digestive tract (stool)

The liver is the main detoxification organ in the body. It processes environmentally acquired toxins. It processes these waste products and makes them ready to be excreted in the stool or the urine.

Some chemicals and toxins we’ve been exposed to are fat-soluble, some are water-soluble and will be stored and processed differently. The liver processes fat-soluble toxins but makes many of them water-soluble so they can be excreted in the urine and the rest is stored in the gallbladder in the bile to be excreted through the stool.

How do we help the liver support this vital function? To help our livers help us, it’s really important to have a high fiber diet, ideally one that includes whole grains and vegetables, and good hydration. We’re aiming for at least one bowel movement (soft stool, easy to pass) per day. Fat-soluble toxins can bind with the fiber in foods and be escorted out of our bodies. Without much fiber in our diets we’re making it harder to rid ourselves of burdensome toxins.

Important disclaimer: while a high fiber diet is generally advised, if you have a medical condition such as diverticulitis be sure to talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your diet.

2. Urinary Tract (urine)

The kidneys excrete water-soluble waste such as excess minerals and the toxins processed by the liver, e.g., benzene. Optimal function for the kidney is supported with good water intake and avoiding excessive salt intake. When the kidneys are inundated with too much salt, they excrete other things we want to keep in the body such as calcium. Although adequate water intake can vary from person to person, in my experience, folks who urinate every 1–2 hours and their urine is pale yellow or clear, are often sufficiently hydrated.

3. Skin (sweat)

Another way that we excrete toxins (fat-soluble and water-soluble) from the body is through our sweat. This is one benefit of exercise and trips to the sauna. For the best results, it’s important to do these activities on a regular basis and then shower afterwards so that what is excreted can be removed rather than reabsorbed back into the body. If you use a sauna, it’s best to not overdo it and limit your time to what’s comfortable, with sessions not exceeding 20 minutes at a time.

While many cultures practice regular saunas as a health promoting activity for centuries, many of us underestimate the power of them. In the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project, firefighters exposed to toxins as a result of the 9/11 attacks who underwent medically-supervised sauna treatments reported improvements in respiratory symptoms, reduced their need for medication and had a considerable reduction in days of work missed. Although this project utilized a regimen with higher intensity than the average person would undertake, lower-intensity activities that promote sweating and are practiced frequently have a cumulative beneficial effect and should not be underestimated.

Spring Cleaning

These systems of elimination: digestive tract, urinary tract, and skin, perform sophisticated, yet often underappreciated functions that keep the body healthy. They also work together and depend on each other. As part of a plan to optimize our health, especially as we age, it’s wise to support these systems so that they can rid the body of waste it no longer needs that can bog down the body and impair its ability to deal with environmental challenges.

The spring is a great time to do a “metabolic detox” and work on our detox pathways. Are they in good working order as we potentially face another devastating wildfire season?

A few helpful resources:

The Environmental Working Group compiles a list of the cleanest fruits and veggies, The Clean 15, and on the opposite spectrum, the Dirty Dozen. These lists can help you create a shopping list that will decrease the chemical load entering your body through the diet.

If you want to learn more, you can check out my chat with Susan Rosin on the Healthy Tips After 50 podcast: https://healthytipsafter50.com/toxins-azzola/

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Dr. Cris Azzola, ND

Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, from Bastyr University. I specialize in mental health and burnout prevention.