How often do you hear someone say they’re on a ‘detox’ or ‘cleanse’? It seems to be a hot topic these days and I hear it all the time from my patients. Often what they’re referring to is something along the lines of lemon water, fasting, and/or juicing.
Detoxification is the physiological or medicinal removal of toxic substances from a living organism, including but not limited to the human body, which is mainly carried out by the liver. This process is also known as Biotransformation. The goal of these detoxification reactions is to transform fat soluble toxins into water soluble compounds. These water soluble compounds can then (and only then) be eliminated through the kidneys, skin, or gall bladder. Essentially, your goal is to eliminate these toxins from your body but they can only be eliminated once they are water soluble compounds.
As our bodies are exposed to an ever increasing number of harmful toxins on a daily basis, it is important to keep this process running efficiently. If not, these toxins start to build up in the body. Over time this slow accumulation will wreak havoc on our health. Toxins being built up and stored in the body is never a good thing.
Unfortunately, the problem is that our environment is continually getting more toxic. In fact, Jim Jones, who is the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said there are over 1000 chemicals being used now that are SO DANGEROUS they deserve a harder look by the agency to protect public health.¹ That’s no small number!
One of the big promises of GMO crops was that they would reduce the need for herbicides and thus, harmful toxins. However, farmers have doubled the use of herbicides from 1996 to 2012 and usage went from 62 million pounds to 128 million pounds! It seems the push for GMOs hasn’t exactly resulted in less toxins after all. This is even more outrageous when you consider the fact that roundup is toxic to human DNA even when diluted to concentrations 450-fold lower than used in agricultural applications.²
A study done in 2005 revealed even more terrifying news. The study tested the umbilical cord blood of newborns and found a total of 287 different chemicals already present! Of these chemicals, we know that 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain, and 208 cause birth defects! In fact,the average newborn was positive for 200 chemicals in their little bodies. That number is staggering to say the least.³
As you can see our bodies are bombarded with toxic chemicals and our body’s ability to remove them is paramount to living a healthy life.
The question is, how exactly does that happen?
It’s important to realize that detoxification happens in two different phases, mostly in the liver. These phases are both nutrient driven, so poor nutritional habits and lifestyle can impair the process.
Phase One is where your liver will take fat soluble toxins and attempt to convert them to water soluble ones. The toxins are not only from the environment (exotoxin) but also a product of our metabolism and bacterial metabolism (endotoxins). This phase is largely dependent on a family of enzymes known as cytochrome p450. The phase consists of numerous reactions which are dependent on the following nutrients; vitamin B2, B3, B6, B12, folate, glutathione, and flavonoids.
What often happens in phase 1 is that an intermediate is produced that is often more toxic than the original form. Let me repeat that – phase one produces a toxin more toxic than the original form! If phase two does not act quickly enough upon this toxin, it can potentially get redistributed throughout the body and thus, creating even more damage than you started with!
Phase Two completes the transformation by converting the toxin to water soluble waste, which is then ready for elimination. This second phase is referred to as the conjugation phase and is dependent on the following nutrients: methionine, cysteine, magnesium, glutathione, vitamin B5, B12, vitamin C, glycine, taurine, glutamine, folate, and choline.
Due to our chronic exposure to toxins in modern society, phase one is required to work faster and harder than ever before. While it does this, it quickly steals and consumes the nutrients that are also needed in phase two. As a result, phase two slows down and toxic intermediates begin to build up. It becomes a vicious cycle which can begin to destroy your health!
As toxins accumulate over time, there will come a point where the accumulation exceeds our ability to detoxify and eliminate them. This is known as Total Toxic Load. Once we exceed our total toxic load, we are likely headed towards adverse health effects.
So what can we do?
Well there are some simple steps that everyone can take to help reduce exposure to toxins. I always recommend starting with these basic changes:
After you incorporate these easy changes, I recommend doing a structured functional medicine detox. This will involve a program that addresses diet as well as the digestive tract and liver. This detox is designed to address the major source of endotoxins from our gut bacteria as well as involving a component that aims to help support the liver with specific herbs and nutrients to support both phases of detoxification.
It is important to keep in mind that just eliminating certain foods from our diets does not necessarily detox our bodies without the proper supplements and support needed to assist in the process. When a patient tells me that they are on a cleanse or detox that is more of a fast or liquid diet, I applaud them for their efforts. Many of these patients do feel better on these diets. However, it is not likely due to the fact that they are able to eliminate toxins better but rather it may have more to do with the fact that they are avoiding common food allergens or sensitivities. Thus, their bodies don’t have to deal with the inflammation created when eating foods that may elicit an immune response and ultimately, they feel better.
It is also crucial to realize that health issues may sometimes be aggravated and can potentially make you feel worse during a detox. This is why I recommend always working with someone qualified to assess your body’s readiness for a detox program. One particular test that we use to look into whether a patient will do well on a detox is called an Organic Acids Test. This test gives insight into metabolic processes at a cellular level. Organic acids are metabolic intermediates that are produced in pathways of central energy production, detoxification, neurotransmitter breakdown, or intestinal microbial activity. Accumulation of specific organic acids detected in urine often signals a metabolic inhibition or block. The metabolic block may be due to a nutrient deficiency, an inherited enzyme deficit, toxic build-up, or drug effect. It is important to know that the liver is able to run both phase 1 and phase 2 of detoxification before increasing the demand on the liver by starting a detox program.
By making lifestyle changes to reduce exposure to toxins and supporting the body’s ability to eliminate them is paramount in our modern society. If you have been suffering from symptoms of poor energy, poor sleep, sensitivities to chemicals, cravings, poor memory, autoimmunity, gall bladder issues, resistance to weight loss, or poor skin you should consider looking into whether a detox program is right for you!
2. Archives of Toxicology, May 2012: 86(5):805-13
3. Body Burden – The Pollution in Newborns, A benchmark investigation of the industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in umbilical cord blood, Environmental Working Group, July 14, 2005