Detoxification is the means by which we rid our bodies of any chemicals that may be harmful to us. Some of those toxic products come in to our bodies from the environment, through the air we breathe, the food we eat, the liquids we consume; and yet others are made within us during the normal processes of metabolism. If we pay attention to our diet, we can maximize our nutrition for detoxification support.
Our liver is the organ that bears the brunt of the chemical process of detoxification. Through certain enzyme systems, our livers have the capacity to create water-soluble, non-toxic substances from more toxic ones, so that they can be excreted from the body. In simple terms, phase I detoxification is where substances are chemically modified or neutralized; and phase II detoxification is those substances being bound to molecules and excreted.
Making sure detoxification pathways are working well is important for everyone, but it is especially important for people who have any chronic health issues. If either the phase I or phase II detox mechanisms are overloaded, inefficient or out of balance with each other, the toxins can become even more damaging to the body and patients can experience everything from hormone imbalance (the liver has to detoxify hormones), amplified side effects of medications, multiple chemical sensitivities and chronic fatigue-like symptoms. Typical symptoms of impaired detoxification include fatigue, headaches, joint/ muscle pain and skin breakouts (acne, rashes, etc).
Then we have our organs of elimination such as the skin, lungs, kidneys and bowels. These routes of elimination must be open so that the toxins can get out instead of recirculating throughout the body.
There are three major keys to reducing the toxic load on the body –
1) reduce the intake of chemicals and toxic substances
2) improve the phase I and phase II detox mechanisms of the liver
3) make sure the channels of elimination are clear so that toxins can be removed
Nutrition can help us in all three of those areas.
Reducing Intake of Chemicals
Total Load Theory
There is a theory of “total load” as far as toxins go. This means that every toxin we take in contributes to the overall toxic burden on the body. It might be that a person could eat junk food and not feel a toxic effect from it, or another person might be able to drink 3 glasses of wine per night and not feel a toxic effect from it. But if that first person ate processed food regularly, drank three glasses of wine a night, and was taking four different antibiotics, their “total load” would be quite high.
Instead of trying to eradicate all toxic sources to the body, which is impossible, we try to reduce the “total load”, so that whatever toxins are taken in are below the threshold of what would impact that person symptomatically. Hence if you are taking medications for a health condition, or if you have medications that you take for pain or other symptoms, then let that be your “toxic allowance” and do not let your food contribute to your total load. Simply put, food can add to your quota of toxic stress, or take away from it, depending on the choices you make.
Eat Organic Foods
To reduce the toxic load coming into the body, it is important to eat organic foods. Foods that have been treated with fertilizers, pesticides and hormones are laden with toxins that are potentially harmful to the body. Non-organic foods are also more likely to be genetically modified, which studies have proven can actually change our DNA, our genetic code, which in turn is can affect how we produce the proteins that make up our organs and tissues. I appreciate that buying organic foods is typically more expensive than non-organic, however I cannot stress enough the importance of this in reducing overall toxicity. Stores such as Trader Joes are setting the price of organic foods very competitively with non-organic, and hopefully as demand grows this trend will continue.
Drink Filtered or Purified Water
Similarly, water should always be filtered or purified. Tap water contains fluoride, chlorine, heavy metals and other undesirable chemicals. I do not like distilled water as it leaches minerals from the body, however a good quality filter or water in the large hard plastic containers (such as Sparkletts) is a worthwhile investment.
Eat Fish with Low Mercury
Heavy metals are a large consideration here. Mercury intake from fish comes up as a question among many patients – how relevant is it? How can we avoid it? I do think it is a relevant issue and it is important to select fish that typically contain lower mercury levels, such as salmon and halibut. Tuna, swordfish, mackerel and other large cold water fish tend to be the most problematic. Exposure to mercury through vaccines, amalgam fillings and industrial pollution should be minimized where possible. Mercury is a known neurotoxin, and has numerous detrimental effects on the body. Mercury is also known to disable DPP-IV, the enzyme that breaks down gluten. So if one has mercury toxicity, there is less innate ability to break down gluten molecules.
Improving Phase I and Phase II Detox Pathways
Certain foods can help or hinder the detox capabilities of the liver. Highly processed foods, saturated fats, caffeine, alcohol and large meals can all slow the liver down. On the other hand, there are plenty of foods that boost liver function.
Foods that Help Phase I Detoxification
Beets contain antioxidants such as beta-carotene, other carotenoids and healing flavonoids. Antioxidants help to limit the damage caused by free radicals, thus they have a healing and cleansing effect on the liver; beets also have folic acid which is necessary for Phase One detoxification.
Broccoli contains B vitamins and vitamin C both of which help Phase One detoxification; it also is a source of folic acid.
Brown Rice provides B vitamins and the antioxidant selenium.
Carrots contain beta-carotene and other carotenoids that help to protect the liver.
Eggs supply B vitamins.
Garlic has selenium and glutathione, both of which act as antioxidants.
Spinach provides folic acid and other B vitamins.
Tomatoes have vitamins C and E which are both needed for Phase One detoxification. They are also a good source of the antioxidant lycopene.
Melons and peppers are good sources of vitamin C.
Tomatillos, papaya, plantains, carambola and guava are good sources of the antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamin C.
Foods that Help Phase II Detoxification
Broccoli contains natural sulfur compounds which are needed to enhance Phase II detoxification.
Cabbage like broccoli, contains natural sulfur compounds.
Eggs contain methionine, a sulfur-containing compound needed for detoxification.
Brazil nuts contain selenium, an antioxidant needed for detoxification.
Garlic has methionine which is needed for detoxification; also contains glutathione, a powerful antioxidant.
Onions have sulfur compounds which are important in both detoxification pathways; also a source of glutathione.
Asparagus and watermelon are rich, natural sources of glutathione which is important for liver detoxification.
Papaya and avocado help the body to produce glutathione.
Mushrooms have a lot of glutamic acid which is needed to produce glutathione and help with liver detoxification.
Foods For the General Health of the Liver
Cayenne pepper contains many phytochemicals including beta-carotene and lutein and is rich in certain B vitamins as well as vitamins C and E. It also aids in digestion.
Lemon is a bitter, alkalinizing food which is helpful for general cleansing of the body.
Walnuts are a source of arginine which helps the liver detoxify ammonia, a waste product in the body; they are also a rich source of glutathione and omega-3 fatty acids.
Caraway seeds contain many flavanoids and carotenoids which act as antioxidants. Caraway is helpful in liver and gallbladder disease and helps produce glutathione in the body.
A Note About Detox Reactions
When people get into detox programs, they may experience symptoms during the first few days such as headaches, increased fatigue, skin outbreaks, muscle soreness, impaired sleep and joint pain. This is a sign that the body is throwing off toxins, and is usually a good thing. Detox-type symptoms should only last one day up to a few days. This is different from a herxheimer reaction, which is more specific to the impact of killing off microorganisms.
Making Sure Channels of Elimination are Open
The channels of elimination are skin, lungs, kidneys and bowels. The bowels are very important as many people experience constipation, which blocks the release of toxins from the body. Ideally, you should have a bowel movement 2 or 3 times daily, but in western society, this is very unusual. Most people consider it “normal” if they go once a day, but there are many people who can go several days without a bowel movement and/or rely on some kind of laxative, natural or otherwise, to be able to go.
Maintaining a high-fiber diet is the most important thing you can do. I believe about 20% of patients I see in my practice actually start out getting enough fiber in their diet. For those who are really constipated, I build them up to 1 teaspoon of psyllium seed with 3 teaspoons of ground up flax seeds, either sprinkled on fruit or salad, blended into a smoothie or mixed with kefir. You can do this twice daily. I will also use higher doses of vitamin C or magnesium to get the bowels moving, which can be quite effective, and is still less irritating to the bowels than laxatives such as senna or cascara.
The kidneys are responsible for clearing much of the toxic load from the body also. Some medications clear predominantly through the kidneys, hence we check both liver and kidney function during antibiotic treatment. Drinking plenty of water is helpful to keep the kidneys well flushed, and some people like to do the kidney cleanse drink also, which is a delicious cocktail of lemon and lime juice, cranberry juice, water and cayenne pepper!
The skin is underestimated as a great elimination organ. Sweating is another way that toxins can leave the body. People who exercise regularly get this added benefit, as well as detox from the lungs through their breathing. For chronically ill or incapacitated people who may not be able to do much aerobic activity, far-infra red sauna is a great way to assist the body to detoxify. Far-infra red is superior to regular sauna in that it allows for deeper penetration of heat into the tissues, stirring up a great detox result, while the actual temperature of the sauna is lower. As with any kind of detoxification, it may produce some cleansing reactions at first, and sensitive individuals are cautioned to start at low temperatures for short periods of time, building up as their tolerance allows. Another option is Epsom salts baths – the heat from the bath will stimulate sweating while the magnesium sulfate stimulates detox.
POINTS TO REMEMBER:
The three tenets of detox are –
• Reduce your intake of chemicals through eating organic food and fewer processed foods.
• Help the liver by eating foods such as garlic, onions, green leafy veggies, beets, nuts and seeds.
• Make sure channels of elimination are open – eating plenty of fiber to have 2-3 bowel movements per day; breathing deeply to encourage oxygen exchange, drinking plenty of water and sweating all utilize our organs of elimination.
• Drink lemon juice or essential oil in water to help with detox reactions.