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What Are Toxins?

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According to the diet industry, toxins should rank high on our list of things to worry about. Numerous health products claim to cure symptoms like headaches, sluggishness, and even chronic disease by flushing the substances from our systems. But don’t be too quick to order a pack of foot pads or drink nothing but cayenne pepper lemonade for 10 days straight: Most health experts will tell you that toxins aren’t exactly the nutritional bogeymen they’re made out to be.

One such expert is Peter Thorne, a professor at the University of Iowa, head of the College of Public Health’s Department of Occupational & Environmental Health, and director of its Environmental Health Sciences Research Center. In a conversation with mental_floss, he said that the first thing most people get wrong when talking about toxins is the basic meaning of the term. “The words toxin, venom, toxicant, xenobiotic—these all have very specific meanings in the realm of toxicology,” Thorne says.

A toxin is defined as any harmful substance produced by a living organism. Some examples are the toxic chemicals injected by animals like bees, snakes, and sea urchins (which are all technically venom, a toxin subset). Other poisons that fall under the toxin umbrella include those produced by a dart frog or the leaf of a hemlock plant.

Toxic substances added to the environment by people, on the other hand, are called toxicants. When diet commercials and health magazines use the word “toxins,” this is usually what they’re referring to. So, by definition, toxins are always “all natural”—though whether or not that label carries any weight is a different story.

Going on a juice cleanse obviously won’t do much to treat a snakebite, but is it an effective way to rid your body of toxicants like pesticides? Thorne says that’s a question most people don’t need to be asking in the first place. “We’ve evolved with a whole cadre of metabolic enzymes that process most of the toxicants to which we’re exposed,” he says. When late-night infomercials warn that toxins (a.k.a. toxicants) can’t be avoided as long you're someone who eats, drinks, and breathes, they’re not entirely wrong. The one part they usually fail to mention, however, is that humans have evolved to become pretty good at dealing with these substances on our own.

The majority of the low-level toxicants that enter our bodies—whether through the air we breathe or the food we ingest—are metabolized and expelled by organs like the liver and kidneys. Urine, excrement, and exhalations are a few of the exit routes toxicants can take from your system. “For the vast majority of what we’re exposed to, it has no long-term effect,” Thorne says.

Complications arise when people come into contact with toxicants in high doses. If you’re the resident of a place with dangerously high arsenic levels in the water or significant amounts of air pollution, for example, then your body may be taking in too much toxic material to process. Fortunately, agencies like the FDA and EPA (Thorne is a member of the latter's science advisory board) exist to determine safe toxicant levels and limit how much the public is exposed to.

Industry regulations are intended to ensure that toxicants are something most U.S. citizens don't have to think twice about. But for a small percentage of the population, even limited exposure to toxicants can be detrimental to their health. People born with certain environmental sensitivities or genetic mutations, for example, aren't as well equipped to handle toxicants as those without them. In these rare cases, doctors may suggest medication or dietary changes as treatments. What they likely won’t recommend is one of the many home “detox” remedies that can be found over the counter.

The health guidelines toxicologists like Thorne set forth are the result of years of rigorous study. Products like detoxifying teas, face masks, and colon-cleansing capsules often have no research to back up their effectiveness. “For the vast majority of people, if you’re living a healthy lifestyle and you have [a well-balanced] diet, you have no need to even think about some of these extreme measures I’ve seen advertised,” Thorne says. “I’ve seen some evidence out there to suggest they’re [in] no way valuable or effective—or needed.”

Toxicology research has brought us a long way in just the past several decades: Lead is no longer added to our gasoline and mercury is no longer a key ingredient in hat-making. As new research broadens our understanding of the area, there’s one thing we can keep in mind: More often than not, detoxing is a job best left to your organs.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Could the Repeal of Net Neutrality Mean for Internet Users?
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What could the repeal of net neutrality mean for the average American internet user?

Zouhair Belkoura:

The imminent repeal of net neutrality could have implications for Americans beyond the Internet’s stratification, increased costs to consumers, and hindered access to content for all. Net neutrality’s repeal is a threat to the Internet’s democracy—the greatest information equalizer of our time.

With net neutrality’s repeal, ISPs could be selective about the content and pricing packages they make available. Portugal is a good example of what a country looks like without net neutrality

What people may not realize is that a repeal of net neutrality would also give ISPs the ability to throttle people’s Internet traffic. Customers won’t likely have visibility into what traffic is being throttled, and it could substantially slow down people’s Internet connections.

What happens when this type of friction is introduced to the system? The Internet—the greatest collective trove of information in the world—could gradually be starved. People who experience slower Internet speeds may get frustrated and stop seeking out their favorite sites. People may also lose the ability to make choices about the content they want to see and the knowledge they seek.

Inflated pricing, less access to knowledge, and slower connections aren’t the only impact a net neutrality repeal might have. People’s personal privacy and corporations’ security may suffer, too. Many people use virtual private networks to protect their privacy. VPNs keep people’s Internet browsing activities invisible to their ISPs and others who may track them. They also help them obscure their location and encrypt online transactions to keep personal data secure. When people have the privacy that VPNs afford, they can access information freely without worrying about being watched, judged, or having their browsing activity bought and sold by third-party advertisers.

Virtual private networks are also a vital tool for businesses that want to keep their company data private and secure. Employees are often required by their employers to connect to a VPN whenever they are offsite and working remotely.

Even the best VPNs can slow down individuals' Internet connections, because they create an encrypted tunnel to protect and secure personal data. If people want to protect their personal privacy or company’s security with a VPN [they] also must contend with ISP throttling; it’s conceivable that net neutrality’s repeal could undermine people’s freedom to protect their online safety. It could also render the protection a VPN offers to individuals and companies obsolete.

Speed has always been a defining characteristic of the Internet’s accessibility and its power. Net neutrality’s repeal promises to subvert this trait. It would compromise both people's and companies’ ability to secure their personal data and keep their browsing and purchasing activities private. When people don’t have privacy, they can’t feel safe. When they don’t feel safe, they can’t live freely. That’s not a world anyone, let alone Americans, want to live in.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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