Toxins and Infections: Where Do They Come From?

What Do We Mean By Toxins?

When we talk about toxins in the body, this can cover a wide variety of natural or synthetic chemicals. In its broadest sense, the term ‘toxin’ can include any poisons, including those intended to deliberately kill. People have used arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide for centuries for this purpose, they do their job very effectively.

Traditionally, such deliberately administered toxins came from plants. Henbane, nightshade, yew, hellebore, and autumn crocus are all sources of deadly toxins that perpetrators have used to despatch unfortunate victims for many centuries. Others have bizarre and often deadly hallucinogenic properties, such as the opium poppy and Brugmansia.

Some of the deadliest toxins known come from plants. Ricin, for example, extracted from a common garden plant, can be lethal if you consume just one thousandth of a gram (according to an article in the Journal of the European Food Standards Agency), But it’s not just plants that produce these lethal chemicals.

Toxins from Microorganisms

Microorganisms produce a broad array of toxins capable of killing us too.  These range from a mild ‘upset tummy’ from a poorly barbecued prawn through to Clostridium botulinum. This is a bacterium that can survive the fish canning process, and produces a neurotoxin around ten times more deadly than ricin, according to figures from the American Medical Association quoted in Wikipedia. This toxin is better known as ‘Botox’, used to deliberately paralyse facial muscles in cosmetic treatments. 

Fortunately, much of humanity manages to survive without being poisoned by any of these naturally occurring lethal toxins. But it’s not surprising that many less lethal toxins enter our bodies every day.  These come from all manner of natural sources, with varying effect.

It’s relatively easy to avoid the more obvious, and deadly, toxins produced by plants. Mistakes still occur though. Occasional deaths occur in the UK, and more often in other European countries where people are more likely to forage for mushrooms, still happen. Foragers mistake Death Cap and other poisonous mushrooms for edible fungi. Avoiding microorganisms is more difficult, however. Bacteria are everywhere.  Or almost everywhere. The only places on the surface of the planet that have no bacteria are the internal organs and tissues of healthy plants and animals, and the mouths of active volcanoes.

By ‘internal organs and tissues’ here, we mean the bits that aren’t connected to the outside world. There are more bacteria in the human gut than there are cells in our body. The number is equivalent to the total number of stars in our galaxy in each of us!   So as an ecosystem, we are more bacterial than human. Most of these bacteria are however entirely harmless. Indeed, they are indeed necessary for the proper functioning of the digestive system. But not all of them. 

How Do Microorganisms Make Us Ill?

There are three principal ways that microorganisms can make us ill. They are:

  1. Growing in our food and producing toxins. This could be, for example, the ubiquitous bacterium Staphylococcus aureus This gets into prepared food such as pies and sausages and grows there, producing a toxin. When you eat the pie, your stomach enzymes quickly kill the bacteria, but the toxins are absorbed This usually results in an unpleasant day or so when you wouldn’t want to be far from a toilet. At the other extreme, grain contaminated with ergots (scientific name Claviceps) contains a toxin that can cause a condition known as ‘gangrenous ergotism’. This results in the spontaneous shedding of limbs, commonly followed by death, perhaps not surprisingly.
  2. Producing a toxin by growing in our gut. In those cases, the bacterium doesn’t get into our internal tissues or organs. It stays on the ‘external’ side of the gut wall along with all the other harmless bacteria. But here, it produces a toxin that can cause severe illness. Diseases like this include typhoid and cholera, caused by bacteria. They also include amoebic dysentery, caused by a single-celled animal.  Infections of this kind can spread through populations very quickly. This happens especially where sanitary conditions are poor. The microorganism responsible can grow rapidly in the gut and is widely dispersed through faeces.
  3. Getting into our internal tissues and organs, by evading or overcoming our immune system, and growing in our blood and tissues. Examples here include anthrax. This is a bacterium that produces resistant spores. These can withstand cooking or drying and can survive hundreds of years outside of a host species. Or Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic plague. There are also fungi, such as a range of yeasts that cause urinary tract infections. Or Plasmodium, a single-celled animal that grows in red blood cells and causes malaria. This disease still results in more deaths per year than any other microbial infection. Wound infections are also a common route for bacteria to get into our bodies. For example, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which creates frothy blue pus in a wound. Or tetanus, which gets in through small wounds to produce a neurotoxin. This results in muscle contractions so extreme that they can break bones.  Infections can also be caused by viruses, but we’re not going to discuss those here. They work in a rather different way.

What Are Infections?

When bacteria or other microorganisms get into those normally sterile parts of our body, we usually refer to that as an ‘infection’.  Thankfully, in developed countries, we can treat more serious infections resulting from bacteria and (to a lesser extent) other non-viral microorganisms nowadays using antibiotics.

Overuse of antibiotics has resulted in many of these becoming useless. Thi is because bacteria have developed a resistance to them. Using antibiotics more and more simply selects for these resistant bacteria as the bacterial species rapidly evolves. Nevertheless, antibiotics remain by far the class of drugs we use most to combat bacterial infections. Coupled with vaccinations, they have reduced the number of deaths from formerly widespread bacterial diseases. These include tuberculosis, whooping cough, and plague, now reduced to minimal levels in most parts of the world.

We should note though that in developing countries where there’s no state-funded health care, drugs are expensive. Access to good, broad-spectrum antibiotics can be very limited. 

What are Toxins?

According to, toxins are substances created by plants and animals that are poisonous (toxic) to humans. Toxins originating from microorganisms, whether through infection or contamination, don’t necessarily cause specific, serious illness. They can just produce a low level of toxicity that reduces our well-being and ability to function effectively. Over the last century, most scientific research has focused on the microbial infections that cause serious illness. Much less is known about the extent to which ‘unhelpful’ bacteria in our gut and environment. These can produce toxins that inhibit our day-to-day well-being. 

Deliberately Consumed Toxins

So, microorganisms, even where they don’t cause specific illness, can be a major source of the toxins that end up in our bodies. But they’re not the only source. We might consume them deliberately, for pleasure.  Perhaps the most obvious of these is alcohol. Alcohol results from what was originally food contamination by yeast. This produces ethanol, a toxin that would be deadly in small quantities, were it not for a specific detoxification process in our livers that breaks down alcohol, and the ability of our kidneys to filter it out of our blood and excrete it.  Alcohol is ubiquitous in sugar-containing foods such as fruit. So we would not have been able to survive as a species without that detoxification process.

Other recreational drugs, and nicotine, are also naturally occurring toxins that we consume by choice. We do this for the pleasure of their narcotic effect. But there are many other toxins in foodstuffs. These might be there naturally, or might have arisen through processing the food. Producers might have applied them to foods as pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, or preservatives.

In some cases, our bodies might have mechanisms for getting rid of specific toxins. In other cases, they don’t.  For example, DDT was a widespread, and very effective, pesticide used in the first half of the twentieth century. Governments eventually banned it because scientists discovered that our bodies have a limited ability to get rid of DDT. Levels gradually built up in people’s bodies, causing long-term toxic effects. According to an article in Scientific American, parents can pass down these toxic effects to future generations through toxicity to foetuses.

So, all sorts of toxins, from microbial and other sources, are drifting through our bodies. Our bodies are dealing with them in various ways. We do this by detoxification pathways in our liver, and excretion through our sweat glands, gall bladder, and kidneys. But sometimes, our body could do with a bit of extra help to deal with these…

Ways To Reduce Toxins in Our Bodies

1. Avoid or Eat Less Toxin-containing Foods

Where you’re deliberately consuming them, consume less of them, or none. Reducing consumption of foodstuffs that contain toxins obviously helps. It makes it less likely that our detoxification pathways become overloaded.

2. Detoxification

It’s also possible to concoct food and drinks that have an actual detoxifying effect. There is a fashion now for ‘detox’ diets. Many companies market detox foods and drinks.  But it’s worth looking into the science behind this. What toxins are we talking about, and how do these detoxification products work? And is the effectiveness of centuries-old detox potions used in some cultures borne out by scientific evidence? 

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