To detox or not to detox? That is the question. There is a lot of confusion surrounding the concept of detoxification. On the one hand, it is common to hear people talk about going through different programs or diets in order to detox the body. On the other side of the coin are skeptics who say that the body detoxifies just fine all on its own. So who is right? In a sense, both ideas are correct. It’s a complex topic, so let’s explore the concept of detoxification in more depth.
What Is Detoxification?
The term detoxification can mean many different things ranging from a spiritual context (sometimes referred to as purification or cleansing in certain religions) to various health rituals and methods for clearing out harmful substances from the body (or specific parts of the body). Some of the views surrounding detoxifying the body are backed by science while others are not.
The Body’s Natural Defense System
The type of physiological detoxification that has been extensively studied refers to a specific pathway within the body. This pathway’s purpose is to take harmful substances and make them less harmful and ready for removal by the body. This happens through a serious of enzyme-driven reactions. Sometimes this is known as metabolic detoxification. Many compounds, organs, and processes are involved, but the liver is the star of the show. It is the main detoxifying organ in the body.
You can probably guess that when you break down detoxification into its Latin roots, it means to “remove toxins, or poisons.” Toxic substances cause damage by acting as mutagens (altering DNA), which can lead to a variety of diseases including cancer. They can also interfere with other pathways and keep them from functioning normally. There are two main types of toxins that the body must neutralize to protect itself from harm: 1) biotoxins, which come from living beings and 2) toxicants, which are man-made chemicals.
Detoxification occurs in 3 Phases:
- Phase 1 (transformation) – enzymes, mainly cytochrome P450s, convert lipid-soluble compounds into water-soluble compounds.
- Phase 2 (conjugation) – The intermediate substances from phase 1 are sometimes even more toxic than the original toxin. So the enzymes in this phase increase their solubility and decrease their toxicity. There are multiple families of phase 2 enzymes that have different (but some overlapping) functions.
- Phase 3 (transport) – specialized proteins in the liver, intestines, kidneys, and brain work to move the products from phase 2 out of the cell so that they can be excreted by the body via the liver or kidneys. They also work to keep toxins out of the cell in the first place.
What Happens When It Breaks Down?
This amazing built-in system is intricately designed to process and rid our bodies of potentially harmful substances it encounters either from outside sources (ie. cigarette smoke, heavy metals, microorganisms in food) or internal sources (ie. excess hormones, inflammatory molecules). However, there a few things that can cause the system to become overloaded or interfere with optimal functioning.
- Since phase 1 products can be more toxic than the original substance, a problem occurs when phase 2 enzymes cannot keep up with neutralizing them quickly enough. A great example of this is in the case of acetaminophen toxicity. The body can neutralize normal doses, but overdosing causes phase 2 to breakdown, resulting in liver toxicity.
- This is more common than you might think on a more gradual level, due to an ever-increasing toxic load our bodies encounter through our food, medications, water, air, drinking water, etc. For example, a toxic benzene derivative found in disinfectants and deodorizers was found to be present in 98% of adults.
- The detoxification pathway is dependent on many raw materials to do its job efficiently. For example, ATP is required in phase 3 to move toxins across the cell membrane. It is energy dependent. Someone with a disease related to mitochondrial dysfunction, for example, would likely not produce adequate ATP.
- Specific nutrients also act as cofactors and materials necessary to carry out the various phases and it negatively affects function if they are not present in adequate amounts. These include both macronutrients and micronutrients such as protein, vitamin A, B vitamins, iron, calcium, zinc, and selenium.
What Can I Do To Help Support Detoxification?
In order to help the body’s detoxification pathway, it is important to be aware of things that can increase the activity of phase 1 and decrease the activity of phase 2 so that phase 2 is not overloaded (leaving highly toxic phase 1 products to wreak havoc on the body). Things that upset this balance include certain foods and supplements, smoking and alcohol, the aging process, chronic disease states, and certain genetic factors, just to name a few.
Here are some specific tips for cutting down your exposure to toxins and toxicants:
- Include foods rich in antioxidants in your diet
- Buy organic produce when possible
- Limit processed foods
- Drink purified water
- Avoid eating charred portions of meat/cook meat at lower heat
- Use VOC-free cleaning products and low VOC paint
- Don’t heat food in plastic and look for BPA-free and phthalate-free containers
- Opt for throw rugs instead of carpeting entire rooms
Many dietary compounds have been shown to have positive effects on the body’s detoxification pathways through various mechanisms. These can be consumed through foods or supplements. Here are just a few examples are:
- Sulforaphane – found in broccoli
- Xanthohumol – found in hops
- Allicin – from garlic
- Resveratrol – from red wine
- Cilantro extract
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is a precursor to a major endogenous antioxidant involved in the detoxification pathway (glutathione). This is often given to help recover patients from acetaminophen-induced liver toxicity. Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is another commonly used compound for detox support. Both ALA and allicin (from garlic) have been shown to activate Nrf2, which regulates most phase 2 enzymes. NAC, ALA, and allicin are 3 of the compounds included in Holtraceuticals Heavy Metals Detox Formula.
As you can see, despite the body having its own highly complex detoxification mechanism, it is well-supported that it does not always function the way it should. There is also plenty of evidence for actively supporting detox pathways through eating a proper diet, regular exercise and sweating, avoiding toxic exposures when possible, and taking supplements that support (particularly phase 2) detoxification. Certain health conditions, such as severe heavy metal toxicity, require professional help.