I want to change what you think about detoxification.
When I talk about detoxification, I don't mean making an appointment to get your colon cleansed or going on a fast. Because detoxification is not some part-time gig. Detoxification is a full-time job for your body; a natural, ongoing process that happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And with all the toxins and stress in the modern world, it is a lot of work.
You know that we are all exposed to toxins in the air we breathe, water we drink and products we use. (1) But are you aware that how well, or how poorly, your body is able to detoxify will in a large part determine how well or sick you feel?
Now scientists have discovered that what we eat could have a major impact on our ability to detoxify. In a moment I will talk about the special foods, herbs and spices that have been highlighted in the research, but first, let's look at some of the problems toxins cause and what the body does to detoxify.
As a physician I have observed that exposure to environmental toxins can promote a wide variety of ailments. My observation is confirmed in the New York University Medical Center guide Staying Healthy in a Risky Environment, which lists a vast number of symptoms and conditions that can be impacted by environmental factors.
Here are just some of the symptoms and conditions that can result from environmental toxins, from the NYU guide:
- Headache, Coughing, wheezing and shortness of breathe, Eye, ear, nose or throat irritation
- Chills or fever, Dizziness or vertigo, Nausea, Hair loss, Skin rash
- Infertility in women and men, Liver disease, Neurological dysfunction, such as loss of memory or concentration, or confusion
- Weakness or fatigue, Depression and cancer (2)
- Air pollutants
- PCBs, phthalates, bisphenol-A
- Toxins produced by intestinal microbes
- Bile acids
- Metabolic intermediates
- Tobacco smoke
- High alcohol intake
- Consumption of standard vegetable oils
- Eating char-broiled meats
- Consuming BHT
- Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts (10-12)
- Oranges and tangerines
- Caraway seeds and dill seeds
- Adequate protein intake
- Alliums such as onions and scallions, (18)
- Citrus fruit (19)
- Curcumin, from the spice Turmeric (20)
- S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe) (21, 22)
- Milk thistle (silymarin)
- Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts (See 10-12)
The editors of Staying Healthy in a Risky Environment, Dr. Upton and Ms. Graber, clearly recognize the importance of environmental factors in illness.
The Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Controversy
MCS is defined as "a chronic recurrent condition characterized by reduced tolerance to various environmental agents or to a class of chemical substances." Recent research done in Italy found physical changes that indicated reduced detoxification ability for the people with MCS that were examined. (5) E.g. males with reduced levels of glutathione GSH were less able to detoxify heavy metals and thus had more toxicity from them.
What Your Body Needs to Detoxify
Your body needs to detoxify substances from outside the body (exogenous) and those made inside the body (endogenous).
Common External Sources That Need to Be Detoxified:
Common Internal Sources That Need to Be Detoxified:
Many parts of your body are involved in the process of detoxification. The liver is the most important organ that rids the body of toxins. In addition to the liver, the lungs, intestines, kidney and skin play a big part in detoxification as well.
The Liver Performs Two Phases of Detoxification
The liver performs two phases of detoxification; Phase One (oxidation) and Phase Two (conjugation).
In Phase One, the liver uses oxygen and enzymes to burn toxins. This process is called oxidation, and makes the toxins more soluble in water. Making them more water soluble is necessary so they can be more easily excreted from the body by the kidneys or the liver. Most environmental toxins are fat-soluble to start with, and therefore difficult or impossible to eliminate without the liver's help. (6)
Although Phase One is crucial for detoxification, it poses risks. Sometimes the end product of phase one detoxification is more dangerous than the compound being detoxified. Benzene, for example, is a dangerous organic solvent present in gasoline and cigarettes, and a known carcinogen. (7) Phase One enzymes oxidize benzene, producing benzene quinones, which are a source of increased toxicity. (8) To complete the detoxification of benzene, your liver relies on phase two enzymes, which are described below.
The bottom line on Phase One detoxification is: you need it but you don't want Phase One activity to exceed the ability of your liver's phase two enzymes to finish the job, otherwise you're in trouble.
Increased Phase One Liver Activity without a balancing increase in Phase Two activity can be caused by:
Medications can also increase or decrease Phase One liver activity in ways that are highly specific to the drug and its duration of use.
Intense scientific research being done around the world is examining how nutrition can help facilitate the detoxification process.
Scientists from the University of San Francisco note, "A judicious choice of food will counteract noxious agents. Therefore, the diet can be a major factor in determining who does and who does not show toxic symptoms following exposure." (9)
Foods Can Increase Phase One Liver Detoxification and at the same time balance it with an increase in Phase Two detoxification. They include:
No surprise that these foods are recommended for their health benefits. Zinc plays an essential role in Phase One detoxification. A deficiency of zinc doesn't stop Phase One detoxification, but shifts the activity of Phase One enzymes in a direction that encourages the formation of cancer promoting chemicals. In my clinical experience, zinc deficiency, as measured by low plasma zinc levels, is quite common in the United States. Few foods are really rich in zinc, so supplementation is often useful.
Phase Two Liver Detoxification
To rid itself of toxins produced by Phase One detoxification, the liver performs a second phase called conjugation. In this phase, oxidized chemicals are combined with sulfur, specific amino acids or organic acids, and then excreted in bile. (13)
This phase of liver detoxification is inhibited by nutritional deficiency, toxic exposures and medications such as acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol), alcohol consumption, and low protein intake that deplete glutathione which is needed for acetaminophen detoxification.
The most important amino acids for Phase Two detoxification are cysteine and methionine
These two amino acids are the main dietary sources of sulfur and are found in meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Vegetarian sources of cysteine and methionine include nuts, seeds and beans. The usual adult RDA of cysteine and methionine is 700 to 1000 mg per day, but is never fixed because it fluctuates with the liver's burden of toxic compounds. The body's stores of these amino acids are depleted in the process of detoxification, so the greater the toxic stress, the more the body demands.
Bioflavonoids Stimulate Phase Two Detoxification.
Bioflavonoids are abundant in fruit, vegetables and tea, and are the active ingredient in many herbs. Research indicates that bioflavonoids can facilitate the detoxification process by stimulating enzymes. (14)
Scientists from the University of Seville in Spain note that the bioflavonoid luteolin has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activities and may help detoxification. (15) Luteolin is found in vegetables such as peppers, celery, carrots, in herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano and peppermint, and in olive oil. (16)
A prime example is milk thistle, an herbal folk remedy for the liver. The active ingredients are a group of bioflavonoids collectively called silymarin. Research indicates that milk thistle may offer protection from liver disease. (17) The standard amount of silymarin taken is 70 to 210 mg three times a day.
Phase Two Liver Detoxification Helpers include:
Our understanding of what the body needs to detoxify has been revolutionized by scientific research, teaching us the powerful role that enhanced nutrition plays in the process. To learn more check out our toxins page.