Toxic triggers: 8 damaging habits you need to fix now

Use these simple changes to jumpstart the healing process.
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Adapted from The Detox Prescription by Woodson Merrell, MD, chairman of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

I see them every day: the walking wounded. They drag themselves into my office looking pasty, bloated, and wan. They are tired—often bone tired, with barely enough energy to make it through the day. At the same time, they are working harder than ever, running 100 miles an hour on scant fumes, stepping on the stress accelerator all day until it's time to pass out.

They're overweight (maybe just a little, maybe a lot). They're achy. They complain of arthritis, or back pain, or stiff neck, or one of the millions of other painful little messages that their bodies are sending, trying to prompt them to slow it all down—to take care of themselves.

Toxic avengers surround us every day. It's time to ID them and start healing!

More: 67 ways to be healthier in a minute or less!

By the Editors of Rodale News

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Toxic trigger #1: Your tendency to overwork.

Being ambitious and driven could mean you're in overdrive nearly all the time. That means your sympathetic nervous system could be stuck in that classic fight-o-r-flight state that taxes the adrenal system and pumps cortisol and adrenaline into the body.

This leads to weight gain over time, along with shallow breathing, anxiety, higher pulse rate, and an increase in vascular tone … all migraine stage setters, if not outright triggers.

Avoid It: Stimulate your body's natural antidote: the calming parasympathetic nervous system so you're not constantly stuck in overdrive. Meditation is the gold-standard practice for relaxation and perspective. The health benefits are innumerable and are being borne out by study after study showing that it promotes very real and beneficial changes in body and brain.

My favorite technique is one used by the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Simply sit, breathe, and connect your breath to this mantra: "Breathing in, I feel calm. Breathing out, I smile." Even four or five rounds of this simple meditation can change your mood, improve your health, and create balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic system dominance.

More: Working long hours is bad for your heart

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Toxic trigger #2: Your lack of sleep.

For your body's innate processed of detoxification to work at their best, you need plenty of rest. If you're ruthless with yourself and wake up at 5 am every morning to squeeze in a 2-hour cardio workout, work intensely late and into the night, and only allow yourself four hours or so of sleep—as one of my patient's did—you're not allowing your body's innate detoxification system to work at its best.

Avoid It: To be your healthiest, aim to get 8 hours of sleep a night. If you wake in the night, practice dream remembrance—that is, as soon as you start to feel that you are going to wake, instead reject conscious thinking and keep your attention on the dream as tenaciously as you can.

If that doesn't do the trick, try some meditative breath work: Inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of one, then exhale for a count of five. Repeat as necessary to induce sleep—or at least reduce your anxiety about being awake.

More: How toxic are you? Take this test to find out!

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Toxic trigger #3: Your convenience foods fetish.

Convenience foods aren't inherently evil; in fact, they can be quite helpful to busy Americans .. if you take care to limit them and balance your intake with healthier choices. Relying on restaurants or fast-food joints for most of your meals or grabbing quick microwave entrees isn't a good idea and will likely cause your blood sugar and blood fat levels to rise to dangerous levels.

Avoid It: Limit eating out to a couple of times a week. The rest of the time, cook your own simple, organic fare. Never microwave in plastic containers or plastic-lined cardboard ones, which may leach chemicals into food. Use glass or lead-free ceramic instead.

More: McDonald's French fries are "toxic taters," says new campaign

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Toxic trigger #4: Your checkered past.

Ah, youth … that magical time when we think we are invincible, able to do, eat, or consume anything without consequence. Experimenting with drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes is so common in our youth culture that we nearly consider it a rite of passage. Though we grow out of those habits, our bodies hold on to the memories—literally.

When the system is overloaded with toxins, it is forced to find a home for them. Mostly it tucks them away neatly in a nest of body fat, to be dealt with later. Problem is, most of us are carrying on in lifestyles that create ongoing toxic stressors—the body is so busy processing our daily exposures that it never gets a chance to go back and clean up the past.

Avoid It: Stop smoking immediately, limit your alcohol intake to one or two drinks 5 days per week, and avoid recreational drugs. You might also want to look askance at some of your prescriptions. Talk to your doctor about potential for toxicity and—if the risk if high—about other options.

More: Health risks of smoking start with just a few puffs

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Toxic trigger #5: Your travel habits.

Travel can be life enriching; it can also be quite draining, especially if you're a frequent business traveler. Airlines routinely spray insecticides throughout the cabin before international flights, fouling the air quality on board—and that's to say nothing of the ambient germs or air fresheners or flame retardants that build up in recirculated air.

Furthermore, during long, high-altitude flights, such as those to Asia and Australia, passengers are literally exposed to cosmic radiation, which can be a stress to the human system. (Unfortunately there's not much you can do to avoid it if you're going long distances.)

Avoid It: Do what you can to limit the number of trips you take in a year, break your flight into smaller segments, and support your body by drinking plenty of water and choosing the healthiest foods that detoxify naturally—organic fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

More: 6 signs you're way too stressed out

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Toxic trigger #6: Your tendency toward social isolation.

Loneliness is one of those ubiquitous toxins that fly under the radar, but its effects can nonetheless be devastating. Every day new studies are confirming that social isolation leads to degenerative health conditions, most notably depression and heart disease.

Avoid It: Make time for friends weekly (and, no, Facebook updates will not do). If you're facing a crisis, try to find a support group with whom to share your feelings.

More: How to escape the loneliness epidemic

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Toxic trigger #7: Your scented candle fetish.

Any parent with a sick child will take pains to create a home that is free from bacteria and viruses. Often the parents will choose antibiotic soaps and surface sprays. Parents often turn to using scented candles and air fresheners to create a fresh smell in the house, too. That's a serious toxic mistake.

Avoid It: Soap and water has been proven just as effective in keeping bacteria and viruses at bay, so switch to natural cleaners, powered by essential oils. Ditto for air fresheners and candles. If you must use them, though, a much better investment would be in a houseplant or two, which are proven to clear the air pollution.

More: 8 natural green cleaning recipes that work

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Toxic trigger #8: Your love of wheat.

The modern wheat we eat today is in fact a highly hybridized foodstuff that contains dozens of carbohydrate and protein molecules that are new to the human body and likely to create a chemical sensitivity.

Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are only a small part of an overall epidemic of wheat-related woes … ongoing exposure can result in symptoms that could eventually lead to obesity, heart disease, and even diabetes. Don't get me wrong: Whole grain foods can be a healthy choice if you're among those who can tolerate them. If you are sensitive to them, however, they can wreck your health.

Avoid It: Cut the wheat entirely if you're experiencing IBS or GERD; even if you're not, cut back on the stuff significantly to see if your condition improves. Consider looking at other problematic foods, too, especially dairy, soy, eggs, nuts, and seafood. Together with wheat, these five foods are thought to account for 90 percent of all food allergies and sensitivities.

Talk to your doctor about a simple panel test for IgG or whole blood allergic reactions—which are not as severe as the classic IgE reaction associated with anaphylactic shock but can contribute to chronic problems such as headaches and IBS. Definitely experiment with quinoa, a rarely allergenic grain that's also a great source of protein.

For more on fine-tuning your diet to avoid aggravating foods, read Are certain foods making you sick?

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