A compound is labeled a toxin if it elicits an adverse biological reaction when introduced to another organism at a specific dose. However, this is a limited understanding of how beneficial toxins can be. In this series, we aim to demystify toxins, and show how many can be essentially harmless, and even beneficial.
Toxins: Misunderstood Fears
The term “toxin” can conjure up negative connotations. It may conjure the image of a liquid secreted by an exotic, deadly animal. More mundanely, one might believe toxins are harmful chemicals built up in the body that can be cleansed with the right combination of supplements and green juices. The truth is much more complex, and much less worrisome. While the term “toxin” often invokes images of danger and harm, toxins are a diverse group of substances that can have both detrimental and beneficial effects. This article is the first in a series from WEX Pharmaceuticals that aims to demystify toxins, highlighting their prevalence in natural and medicinal environments as well as their usefulness to humans. Here, we will be defining what toxins are and how they interact in the body.
Toxins: Natural Origins
The first step in demystifying toxins is understanding what they are. Toxins are natural compounds found in various forms and in various places throughout the environment, ranging from plants and animals, to microorganisms and synthetic chemicals. In natural settings, toxins are often produced by organisms as a defense mechanism against predators. While toxins have traditionally been defined as having come from a biological source, the term has expanded to include compounds created artificially, particularly as science has advanced and toxins previously only found in natural sources have been replicated synthetically in laboratories.
Why are Toxins Feared?
There is a justifiable reason why toxins are often seen in such a negative light: Although they may be responsible for a variety of reactions, a compound is labeled a toxin if it elicits an adverse biological reaction when introduced to another organism. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that toxins can be seen as a scary subject. However, it is important to understand that toxins exist on a spectrum, and they can interact with the human body in a myriad of ways. Some effects can be very detrimental to humans, but others can be incredibly mild (such as a rash or an upset stomach). Often, how toxins are processed by the body depends on a variety of factors, including how contact with the toxin was made, and if humans are adept at metabolizing the toxin. In truth, the very labelling of an organic compound as a “toxin” dates back to a time where the science surrounding such subjects was in its infancy, which can help to explain why stereotypes regarding toxins can be woefully outdated.
Toxin: The Origins of a Term
Stemming from the Latin toxicum (poison)[i], the word toxin has been used to describe toxic organic materials since the late 19th century. During that time period, an increased understanding of microbiology and chemistry gave researchers the ability to study natural compounds and their applications in ways previously not possible. Once an organic material was found to have harmful ‘toxin’ properties to humans, it was labelled a toxin[ii]. More than a century after this definition was first introduced, medical science has evolved a great deal. As new discoveries and methods of observation are introduced, so are new ideas regarding what is harmful to humans, and what can aid them. Elements such as mercury and lead, used then in everything from cosmetics to household medicines, are now rightfully understood to be highly toxic to human beings. Conversely, toxins that were once thought of as highly dangerous are now viewed with a more measured gaze. Some of these toxins will be discussed in our following articles, but it bears noting that this evolution of ideas is integral to the progress of science. Viewing something as both toxic and beneficial may seem impossible, but it allows for a more open-minded understanding of science, one that allows us to redefine and explore how toxins are understood and utilized.
A More Balanced View
Toxins are complex. Minimizing them to “substances that are harmful to humans” neglects the benefits they can have on the human body. Toxins can have many mechanisms separate from those that trigger the human immune response, some of which may be quite beneficial to humans. Understanding the positive role toxins can play is crucial to the demystification process.
In the next article in this series, we will be discussing toxins that are consumed and utilized by humans every single day.
[ii] Pappas, A. A. et al. “Toxicology: past, present, and future.” Annals of clinical and laboratory science vol. 29,4 (1999): 253-62.