We all talk detoxification and how important it is for our overall health. Unfortunately, detoxification is mostly used in short-term programs, retreats… to promise vitality, feeling of wellness and healing. The truth is that detoxification can’t be addressed short term as it is a process which happens in every cell every minute of our lives.
The levels of toxins in our environment such as lead in toys, mercury in fish, smog in the air, pollutants in rivers and lakes, tainted beef, pharmaceuticals in the water supply, pesticides in food and synthetic chemicals with unknown properties just to name a few, are increasing daily and take a large toll on our detoxification system.
We are not only exposed to one toxin at a time but to a cocktail of heavy metals and other toxicants in our environment. It has been demonstrated that a singular toxin might not cause major damage but the accumulation/compound of toxins increases its toxicity manifold and is the contributing factor to many chronic disease states.
Man-made substances such as pharmaceuticals, dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls, DDT and other pesticides, and plasticisers such as bisphenol A, work as endocrine disrupting chemicals. They are found in everyday products including plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, cosmetics and pesticides. Endocrine disrupting chemicals interfere with our normal endocrine function through their ability to mimic naturally occurring hormones in the body such as oestrogens, androgens and thyroid hormones. This can lead to overstimulation by blocking receptor binding sites and therefore interfering with the normal function of our hormones.
Some various signs & symptoms of an overloaded detoxification system:
High exogenous (external) toxin exposure can deplete our internal anti-oxidant capacity and overload our detoxification system. This results in an increased production of free radicals causing oxidative stress and poorer clearance of toxins. Furthermore, our detoxification system requires many co-factors and nutrients to effectively eliminate toxins without causing any harm. If our bodies are nutrient depleted, diet is poor, or we suffer from malabsorption or gastrointestinal issues our detoxification system will be ineffective.
Therefore, it is important to prevent the entry of damaging compounds into the body, whilst supporting the detoxification system in the process of removing toxic chemicals. Diet and lifestyle are also highly important in this process.
Our gastrointestinal system cells are a part of our detoxification process as they facilitate the clearance of both external and internal derived toxins. Poor intestinal integrity as seen in Leaky Gut can cause an inflammatory cascade due to the passage (leakage) of unwanted bigger molecules into the blood stream. This consequently depletes glutathione (our major anti-oxidant) and creates an accumulation of pro-inflammatory and oxidative substances.
In our modern lifestyle we all have to deal with living and working in a toxic environment. That’s why in order to avoid toxicity effects a proper supplemental regime, wholesome diet and healthy lifestyle that’s support detoxification of both endogenous (caused by the body) and exogenous (external) toxins is essential.
Several different tissues are involved in detoxification:
Lungs, Skin, Digestive System, Kidneys and Liver
The lungs can detoxify by removing toxic gases.
The skin detoxifies by first of building a barrier for toxins to enter and then using sweat to eliminate them. Sweating through sauna, skin brushing, exfoliating, claybaths or clay masks are all helpful in supporting the skin to get rid of toxins.
The kidneys detoxify by secreting toxins or filtering toxins out of the blood into the urine. They are part of the so called Phase 3 detoxification system. The kidneys can be supported by drinking at least 2 litres of clean water as well as certain herbal teas such as dandelion and nettle and foods which are high in anti-oxidants such as cranberries and blueberries.
The digestive system plays an important role in detoxification. It is estimated that 25% of detoxification processes occur within gastrointestinal tract enterocytes. These cells carry out both phase 1 (via the action of CYP450 enzymes) and phase 3 (via antiporter protein action) functions in an attempt to reduce the passage of non-metabolised xenobiotics to the internal environment. Toxins that are ingested via food and beverages can be accounted a large portion of daily exposure. If our gastrointestinal tract is healthy all goes well but if we suffer from intestinal hyper permeability so called Leaky Gut, undesirable compounds can enter our blood vessel causing “toxicity” symptoms. At the same time these toxic compounds by-pass the normal process of detoxification that would be normally be carried out by the gut cells. Furthermore, the gastrointestinal tract is a major site of metabolised toxin excretion, which originated from the liver. Compromised intestinal integrity, combined with insufficient fibre and dysbiosis, may also lead to reabsorption of toxin metabolites otherwise bound for elimination. Local inflammation of gut cells has been associated with glutathione depletion and therefore may compromise Phase 3 (antiporter protein) function.
Therefore, supporting the gut by reducing inflammation, correcting dysbiosis and restoring gastrointestinal tract integrity is very important. A broad spectrum, high dose probiotic will not only restore healthy gut bacteria balance but research also attributed binding/sequestering damaging compounds (e.g. heavy metals mercury, arsenic, cadmium and lead) to beneficial micro-organism.
The liver is our most important organ which makes up our astoundingly complex and sophisticated intrinsic detoxification system. Every drug, artificial chemical, pesticide and hormone, is broken down (metabolised) by enzyme pathways inside the liver cells. There are two major detoxification pathways inside the liver cells, which are called the Phase 1 and Phase 2 detoxification pathways.
Phase 1 – Detoxification pathway is catalysed by enzymes referred to as the cytochrome P450 enzyme group. Cytochrome P450 enzymes converts a toxic chemical into a less harmful chemical. This is achieved by various chemical reactions (such as oxidation, reduction and hydrolysis), and during this process free radicals are produced which, if excessive, can damage the liver cells.
Phase 2 – Detoxification Pathway is also called the conjugation pathway, whereby the liver cells add another substance (eg. cysteine, glycine or a sulphur molecule) to a toxic chemical or drug, to render it less harmful. This makes the toxin or drug water-soluble, so it can then be excreted from the body via watery fluids such as bile or urine.
The rate at which the liver can eliminate toxins can determine an individual’s susceptibility to toxic overload, which in turn can lead to symptoms of ill-health. When the liver becomes so overloaded with harmful toxins that the liver’s enzymes can no longer cope, the toxins build up and this then manifests itself in a specific disease state. Without the intervention of correct nutrition, this state can become a vicious circle of chronic toxic overload.
Phase 1 and 2 of liver detoxification are heavily nutrient dependent, thus ongoing consumption of amino acids, vitamins, minerals and other supportive compounds are useful to facilitate optimal detoxification processes.
Glutathione conjugation is a very important route as it conjugates toxins to glutathione and therefore renders them harmless. In addition to its role in conjugation, glutathione (GSH) is a significant liver antioxidant. It supports overall cell health and functionality, including neurological function. Unfortunately, we just can’t take glutathione orally as our stomach acid will break down most of it. Therefore, it is necessary to either supplement with liposomal glutathione which is highly bioavailable or supplement with its precursor (NAC, selenium, alpha-lipoic acid).
Vitamins and minerals – particularly the B vitamins – play a major role, acting as co-factors for many enzyme systems including those of liver detoxification. Activated forms of B2, B6, methyl B12 and folinic acid and trimethylglycine provide all factors necessary for healthy methylation (methylation is a necessary part to how your body detoxifies).
Phospholipids such as phosphatidyl choline is the basic building block of the membranes of every cell in the body and is required for optimal function. Phosphatidyl choline encourages healthy fat metabolism by emulsifying fat and enhances digestion and assimilation of all nutrients. It is also a vital nutrient for phase 1 liver detoxification and elimination. Phosphatidyl choline protects the liver against damage caused by alcohol, pollutants, viruses, medications and more. Furthermore, phosphatidyl choline increases the bioavailability of standardized extracts of milk thistle and other nutrients.
Bitter herbs are also important to improve and support phase 1 and 2 detoxification but also stimulate healthy digestion and absorption. Bitter herbs can stimulate saliva to digest carbohydrates, stimulate hydrochloric acid to digest protein and stimulate bile flow from the gallbladder to digest fats. Specific herbs that support detoxification and digestion include dandelion, milk thistle, solidago, gentian and burdock. Milk thistle, known as Silybum marianum (in latin) contains an active ingredient called silymarin. This constituent has been proven to be one of the most potent liver-protecting substances. It prevents free radical damage, stabilizes plasma membranes and stimulates new liver cell production.
The nutrient Diindolylmethane (DIM) comes from the brassica family of plants that includes cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, and the like. It has been shown that the ability to upregulate Nrf2 (known as our master regulator of the body’s antioxidant response) actually declines with age, therefore making us more susceptible to damage from environmental toxins. Moreover, some of the toxic substances which we are exposed to such as mold commonly found in food and houses, more specifically through water damages actually act as Nrf2 inhibitors. In a more simplified manner, mold exposure or toxicity actually blocks our major antioxidant system increasing our overall toxin load and impairing detoxification. Because mold toxins (mycotoxins) can inhibit Nrf2 and our detoxpathways, we need a strong Nrf2 inducing agent to restore the protective antioxidant system, and the associated enzymes necessary for it to do its job as well as recycle it. DIM has a strong Nrf2 activating effect and increases the detoxification process necessary to get toxins, specifically mold toxins (mycotoxins) out of the cell!
Chelation is another important aspect to consider when undertaking a detoxification process. Chelation is the process by which a molecule encircles and binds (attaches) to the toxin and is removed from the system/tissue. Binders such as zeolite, bentonite clay and activated charcoal help support natural detoxification, normalize gut function and safely bind heavy metals.
In regards to diet, a high fiber and water intake will promote the elimination of waste products and reduce the circulation of toxins. An increased intake of polyphenols, antioxidants, bioflavonoids and cruciferous vegetables is beneficial for supporting and protecting the liver. Amino acids include leucine, isoleucine and valine which are considered to be essential amino acids. Dietary sources of these amino acids are dairy products and red meat. Most healthy wholesome diets provide the daily requirement!
Liver detoxification is an important treatment to all acute and chronic conditions. A healthy diet and good digestive function is needed to reduce the intake and maximize the output of toxins. This can be combined with lifestyle changes such as exercise, sauna, hydrotherapy and relaxation and be supported by foods, nutrients and herbs that optimize liver function and providing antioxidant protection.
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Zhang, H., & Tsao, R. (2016). Dietary polyphenols, oxidative stress and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Current Opinion in Food Science, 8, 33–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cofs.2016.02.002
Hodges, R. E., & Minich, D. M. (2015). Modulation of Metabolic Detoxification Pathways Using Foods and Food-Derived Components : A Scientific Review with Clinical Application, 2015.
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