Natalie Walsh has a family member whose eyes swelled shut after eating at a fast-food restaurant. He eventually discovered it was an allergic reaction to red dye in the tomatoes.
Another family member brings her own silverware to restaurants, because touching cheap metals can make her break out in hives.
So Walsh, a student in the Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine program at Bastyr University, was thrilled to find that Bastyr has a robust program in environmental medicine — the study of chemical relationships between the body and its surroundings.
“It just makes sense to study this, because we’re animals functioning in an environment,” says Walsh, who graduates in June 2014. “Just like sunlight affects plant growth, you can see how different pollutants affect us, because we’re biological systems too.”
For naturopathic medicine, which emphasizes the interconnected nature of health, environmental medicine is a natural fit. At Bastyr, that’s reflected in classes, clinical research, and focused clinical care that helps patients find protection and healing from environmental dangers.
John Hibbs, ND, a member of Bastyr’s second graduating class in 1983, has seen environmental medicine move from a fringe specialty to an increasingly central part of 21st century health care. As Bastyr’s most senior faculty member, he trains graduates to contribute to that field.
"We're on the verge of realizing as a medical culture that detoxification therapies need to be a part of our lives," he says. "We've created a fairly toxic world, and we need to take steps in order to be well and prevent illness. But I believe we can teach this in a positive, non-scary way, because it's so doable."
Dr. Hibbs studied detoxification therapies in the 1980s, growing increasingly convinced of their importance. At Bastyr, he teaches environmental medicine courses to all first- and third-year naturopathic medicine students and offers an elective focused on the treatment and toxicology of metals. He also supervises environmental medicine patient visits at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, the University’s Seattle teaching clinic.
His classes teach students about the extraordinary number of potentially dangerous chemicals in the modern world, and the limitation of our knowledge (and regulations) regarding their dangers.
“There’s far more that we don’t know than what we do,” Dr. Hibbs says.
He teaches the functions of the body’s four main organs of excretion: the liver, kidneys, lungs and skin. He teaches the importance of diet, because cells need the right nutrients to rid themselves of toxins. There is strong evidence for the value of fiber, he says.
“If we simply increase fiber, blood toxin levels decrease, because fiber helps the liver succeed in its work," he says.
Environmental medicine is a potentially overwhelming subject, with threats lurking in every plastic package, chemically dyed tomato and breath of mercury-contaminated air. More than 200 synthetic chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood, showing that our contamination begins even before birth. Research has linked synthetic chemicals accumulating in human tissue to cancer, infertility, obesity, heart disease, depression, brain development disorders and other illnesses.
But Dr. Hibbs shows students the body’s remarkable ability to handle such threats – with the right help. "I try to remind students of our body's marvelous ability to cope with most of these things,” he says. “We can deal with them surprisingly effectively."
Dr. Hibbs gives students three messages they can use to help any patient, beginning with a simple regimen. To start making progress immediately, reduce exposure to toxins by eating less processed food and more organic fruits and vegetables. Then, increase output of toxins by eating more fiber and drinking more water.
“If you do those a little bit, you’ve already got a cleansing regimen,” says Dr. Hibbs.
Step two for practitioners is customizing treatments for individual patients and their lifestyles. “We must adapt to the patient. For some people, it can’t be expensive or time-consuming,” he says.
Third, future naturopathic doctors (NDs) should recognize that environmental health is a central part of health, not an obscure specialty. Some patients will need more than minor diet changes, but everyone can benefit from simple steps practiced consistently.
For patients with more extensive needs, Bastyr Center’s environmental medicine shifts offer a chance to focus on detoxification therapies. At Bastyr Center, Dr. Hibbs receives referrals from others at the clinic and from other health care providers, treating patients who suspect chemicals or metals may be causing their health problems.
Those clinical shifts offer students like Walsh a chance to deepen their knowledge. Working with Dr. Hibbs at the clinic has raised her interest in using a detoxification sauna in her future practice.
“I was surprised how much cleansing you can do just by having someone sweat,” she says. “We excrete a lot of things by sweating.”
There is much more to learn about how sweat helps cleanse the body, and how to do it safely. Jason Allen, ND (’04), MPH, a clinical research assistant professor in the Bastyr University Research Institute, has led a first-of-its-kind study on how sauna sessions can help the body flush out toxins. He hopes the study, aided by student researchers and funded by the National Institutes of Health, eventually helps develop better-understood detoxification therapies.
“We help students learn, we help patients get better, and we help inform the scientific community about methods for getting chemicals out of people," Dr. Allen says.