The words ‘detox’ or ‘detoxification’ get thrown around a lot these days but few people really know what these words actually mean.
It’s often a common word used by diet marketers and trainers to sell someone a diet protocol or supplement range.
For the majority of people, these are waste of time and money.
That’s because many fail to understand the detox system and how it actually works. There is no special diet or supplements that serves as the ‘Holy Grail’ to detoxification of the body.
Detoxification, with reference to human health, refers to your body’s ability to convert - or bio transform - waste products and toxins into non-toxic substances that can be excreted from the body.
The truth is we don’t need any complicated or external diets in order to detox the body, as our bodies are already equipped with the best organs we can get – the liver and kidneys.
The purpose of this article is to show you the processes involved in detoxifying the body and the best nutritional protocols to make this a success.
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A toxin is defined as any compound that can harm the structure or function of the body’s cells and tissues.
Toxicity occurs when we take in more, or produce more toxins than the body can eliminate.
Even with a healthy diet and only moderate intakes of substances such as caffeine and alcohol, our bodies are exposed to a cocktail of toxins on a daily basis.
More than 2 million synthetic substances have been identified as toxins to the human body and up to 25,000 new toxins are added to that list each year. Everyday 700,000 tons of chemicals and toxins are released into the environment.
Toxins can slowly accumulate over time within the body and overload our internal detoxification systems. They can enter the body through the skin, lungs or can be ingested with food and drinks. Our body also produces toxins as part of normal metabolic processes.
Toxins cause damage to our cellular DNA and long term exposure can result in metabolic and genetic alternations.
This can effect cell growth, behavior, hormonal balance and immune response and often result in increased sensitivities, allergies and other health problems.
One of the body’s defense mechanisms when faced with toxicity is to store the harmful chemicals in the fat tissue. This means that these poisons can be stored for many years in the body, becoming an ongoing source of ill health.
Symptoms Of Toxicity
When toxins start to overload our internal detoxification systems, this often results in many of the symptoms below:
By reducing the toxic load on the body we will see a reduced number of symptoms with many people reporting the following benefits:
How Does It Work
When it comes to detoxing the body, the two major areas to understand and consider are the liver and cells within the body, as this will produce the greatest impact on our body.
The liver is said to be the most hard working organ in the body and conducts a number of important functions that are vital to life.
It plays an important role in digestion (breaking down the nutrients) and assimilation (building up the body tissue) and can also be considered as one of the most important organs within it comes to detoxifying.
It has further responsibilities, such as acting as a storage site for many essential vitamins and minerals (iron, B12, vitamin A, D, E & K). Red blood cells are produced in the liver, which are responsible for carrying oxygen around the body.
Kuffer cells are also produced in the liver and these destroy micro-organisms in the blood to help fight off any infections.
Aside from detoxification, the liver plays a key role in many metabolic processes and therefore its overall health should be of upmost importance to everybody.
The liver detoxifies harmful substances by a complex series of chemical reactions. The role of these various enzymes activating in the liver is to convert fat soluble toxins into water soluble substances that can be excreted in the urine or the bile, depending on the particular characteristics of the end product.
The liver neutralizes a wide range of toxic chemicals, and that includes those produced internally and externally of the body. When the liver is not functioning optimally or our metabolic processes are disrupted, this neutralizing effect is greatly reduced, leaving the body open to attack from toxins.
This is becoming increasingly more common due to the rise of genetically modified foods and poor diets of today’s modern society.
All foods contain naturally occurring levels of toxins but with the increasing use of various herbicides and pesticides such as polycyclic hydrocarbons, the body requires a strong detoxification system now more than ever
The enzymatic process usually occurs in two steps known as phase 1 and 2 in the liver. Phase 1 either directly neutralizes a toxin, or modifies the toxic chemical to form activated intermediates, which are then neutralized by one or more of the several phase 2 enzyme systems.
Let’s look at each phase in a little more detail.
Phase I: Dexotification
The purpose of the detoxification pathway is to convert a toxic chemical into a less harmful chemical.
Oxidation, reduction and hydrolysis are the key chemical reactions that occur in the phase to convert the chemical. One thing to note is that during this process free radicals are produced too.
In fact, for each molecule of toxin metabolized in phase 1, one molecule of free radical is generated.
We know that free radicals can act just like toxic chemicals in the body, making this process almost a ‘catch 22’. To therefore stop the build up of free radicals it’s important to ensure adequate amounts of anti-oxidants in the diet, as these help reduce the damage from free radicals.
The key enzymes responsible for the chemical breakdown in phase 1 are known as ‘cytochrome P450 enzymes’.
A high toxic load on the body will see a state of hyperactivity of the P450 enzymes, thus producing a high level of free radicals that can damage the liver cells. This is what is commonly referred to as the ‘induction’ of this pathway.
Substances that may cause hyperactivity of the P450 enzymes are: caffeine, alcohol, dioxin, saturated fats, organophosphorus, pesticides, paint fumes, sulfonamides, exhaust fumes, barbiturates.
The effects of exposure to toxins vary from individual to individual. This is an important point to remember as nutrition coaches, as some people are highly sensitive to different endogenous and exogenous toxins.
This is a key reason why we should be treating people as individuals when assessing their nutrition and lifestyle facts.
For example, a client with an underactive phase 1 detoxification will experience caffeine intolerance, intolerance to perfumes and other environmental factors. This person would be highly sensitive to toxins.
This is based on the activity of various cytochrome P450 enzymes, as these will vary from one individual to another, based on genetics, the individual’s level of exposure to chemical toxins, and his or her nutritional status.
Those who are considered sensitive to chemical toxins are also typically classified at high risk of various diseases.
As previously mentioned, a high toxin load can result in hyperactivity of the P450 enzymes, resulting in a high generation of free radicals. Without adequate free radical defences, every time the liver neutralizes a toxin exposure, it is damaged by the free radicals produced.
‘Glutathione’ is considered the most important antioxidant for neutralizing the free radicals produced in phase 1. This can be depleted during high toxic exposure as it is also used for one of the key phase 2 detoxification processes.
When this occurs, and the phase 2 processes that are depended on glutathione are forced to stop, we then see increased oxidative stress on the body, which can result in liver damage.
The liver therefore contains high levels of glutathione as it is such an important detoxifying agent. It can also be found in numerous places within the body, such as the kidneys and lungs, to also provide the same protective function.
It forms a soluble compound with the toxin that can be excreted through the urine or the gut.
Glutathione (GSH) is a polypeptide of glycine, cysteine and glutamine acid.
When glutathione is oxidized in phase 1, it becomes glutathione disulfide (GSSG).
There is a direct relationship between cellular magnesium, GSH/GSSG ratios, and tissue glucose metabolism. This is because glutathione synthesis requires y-glutamyl cysteine, glycine, ATP and magnesium ions to form glutathione.
Glutathione levels are therefore magnesium dependent. A magnesium deficiency will bring about a loss in glutathione, thus reducing the body’s ability to handle free radicals.
The human body therefore requires magnesium and other nutrients in order to optimize its own detox system. Every time we detoxify a chemical, we use up a certain amount of nutrients.
The cytochrome P450 enzymes therefore require several nutrients to function optimally, these being:
There are also a number of co factor nutrients that can play a major role in supporting liver detoxification:
It is suggested that a plentiful supply of those nutrients are always available.
It should also be noted that certain nutrients and substances can actively activate and inhibit the phase 1 detoxification process.
We already know that chemical toxins will activate this detoxification process but there are also a number of nutrients too:
Drugs: Alcohol, nicotine, steroids.
Foods: Cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, charcoal-boiled meats, high protein diet, oranges and tangerines.
Vitamins: niacin, vitamin B, vitamin C.
Herbs: caraway and dill seeds.
Environmental Toxins: carbon tetrachloride, exhaust fumes, paint fumes, dioxin, pesticides.
Substances that inhibit phase I detoxification:
Drugs: benzodiazepines, antihistamines, cimetidine and other stomach acid secretion blocking drugs: ketoconazole, sulfaphenazole.
Foods: naringenin from grapefruit juice, curcumin from turmeric, capsaicin from chilli powder, eugenol from clove oil, guercetin from onions.
Herbs: curcuma longa (curcumin), capsicum frutescence (capsaicin), Eugenia caryophyllus (eugenol), calendula officianalis.
Other: aging, toxins from bad bacteria in the intestines.
Phase II: Dexotification
This is a b phase detoxification pathway that is also known as the conjugation detox pathway.
This is the process whereby the liver cells pass another substance (typically cysteine, glycine or a sulphur molecule) to the toxic chemical. This is to then make it water soluble so it can be excreted from the body.
Each phase of the pathway is a catalyst for the next, and typically follows these 6 steps:
Let’s break these down further to understand how they work.
We have already looked at the role of glutathione as an important stage 1 antioxidant.
In stage 2 it becomes part of the conjugation pathway by producing water soluble mercaptates, which are excreted via the kidney, so essentially the breaking down of the fat soluble toxic chemicals.
At this stage adequate levels of glutathione are dependent upon adequate levels of methionine and cysteine which are required to synthesize glutathione.
Due to its involvement as an antioxidant in phase 1 and a detoxification process in phase 2, it is one of the most effective anti-carcinogens and antioxidants in our cells.
AMINO ACID CONJUGATION
The body can also use certain amino acids to help combat and neutralize toxins in the body. These are namely glycine, taurine, glutamine, arginine and ornithine.
When this pathway is used excessively these amino acids, particularly glycine (as it is the most used) can become depleted. This is typically seen in those following a low protein diet.
Those suffering from hepatitis, alcoholic liver disorders, chronic arthritis, hypothyroidism, toxemia of pregnancy and excessive chemical exposure are commonly found to have a poorly functioning amino acid conjugation pathway.
Methylation involves conjugating methyl group to toxins. When used for detoxification purposes, most of the methyl comes from s-adenosylmethionine (SAM).
SAM becomes available to the body after it is synthesized from the amino acid methionine and is typically used to inactivate oestrogens via a process know as methylation.
It is therefore considered the key player for oestrogen management in the body, by reducing oestrogen excess and preventing oestrogen induced cholestasis, which is the stagnation of the bile in the gall bladder. This has been shown to be particularly active in pregnant females and those on oral contraception.
Sulfation is the conjugation of toxins with sulpfur containing products. These sulphur compounds will typically be found in a number of normal body chemicals and environmental toxins.
It also has a primary role in the elimination of neurotransmitters, so optimal performance of this pathway is required for a healthy nervous system.
Sulfation can be increased by supplemental sulphate, extra amounts of sulphur – containing foods in the diet, and amino acids taurine and glutathione.
This pathway is the conjugation of toxins with acetyl – Coa that provides the primary method for the body to eliminate sulfa drugs and antibiotics.
It is not known how to directly improve this pathway, but we do know that it is dependent on thiamine, pantothenic acid and vitamin C.
This pathway is the conjugation of glucuronic acid with toxins, and is the pathway to process many of the commonly prescribed drugs such as aspirin, menthol, food additives and some hormones.
Nutrients needed by phase II detoxification enzymes:
Glutathione conjugation: Glutathione Precursors (Cysteine, Glycine, Glutamic Acid, and co-factors), Essential Fatty Acids (Black Currant Seed Oil, Flax Seed Oil, EPA), Parathyroid Tissue
Amino acid conjugation: Glycine
Methylation: Methionine, Co-factors (Magnesium, Folic Acid, B-12, Methyl Donors)
Sulfation: Molybdenum, Cysteine and precursor (Methionine), Co-factors (B-12, Folic Acid, Methyl Donors, Magnesium, B-6/P-5-P), MSM
Acetylation: Acetyl-CoA, Molybdenum, Iron, Niacinamide, B-2 Glucuronidation: Glucuronic acid, Magnesium
Glycination: Arginase Enzyme, Glycine, Gly Co-factors (Folic Acid, Manganese, B-2, B-6/P-5-P)
Inducers of phase II detoxification enzymes:
Glutathione conjugation: Brassica family foods (cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts); limonene-containing foods (citrus peel, dill weed oil, caraway oil)
Amino acid conjugation: Glycine
Methylation: Lipotropic nutrients (choline, methionine, betaine, folic acid, vitamin B12)
Sulfation: Cysteine, methionine, taurine
Acetylation: None found
Glucuronidation: Fish oils, cigarette smoking, birth control pills, Phenobarbital, limonene-containing foods
Inhibitors of phase II detoxification enzymes:
Glutathione conjugation: Selenium deficiency, vitamin B2 deficiency, glutathione deficiency, zinc deficiency
Amino acid conjugation: Low protein diet
Methylation: Folic acid or vitamin B12 deficiency
Sulfation: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g. aspirin), tartrazine (yellow food dye), molybdenum deficiency Acetylation: Vitamin B2, B5, or C deficiency
Glucuronidation: Aspirin, probenecid
The last two processes in which the liver can help detox the body are:
1. Filtering the blood
The liver is constantly filtering the blood in our bodies and can help clear 99% of all bacteria and toxins when in a healthy working state.
2. Bile excretion
The other detoxification process involves the liver synthesizing bile and then excreting it. Bile serves as a carrier for toxic substances in the intestines.
Once it reaches the intestines and has helped clear the toxics, it is absorbed by fibre and excreted.
This should highlight the importance of a high fibre diet, as one low in fibre will result in inadequate binding and thus reabsorption of toxins.
The Detox Diet
Now we know the theory and what we really should be trying to achieve when ‘detoxing’ the body, let’s look at what we can actually do to ensure optimal health and performance for our clients.
The truth is we should always be aiming to reduce the toxic load on the body, but by understanding the theory and mechanics of how the liver works, we can put a short term plan together that should reduce the number of chemical toxins in the body and therefore enhance the detoxification pathways in the liver.
Below is an example day of my typical detox diet, which I use with those who require that extra health boost. It also works great for clients who want to instantly kick-start their fat loss efforts by following a very basic template.
I would suggest following this for 1-2 weeks and then transition back to a more varied approach in line with their goals.
Glutathione is made from cysteine, glycine, and glutamic acid. You can get cysteine from the diet, in meat, eggs, garlic, onions, red pepper, broccoli and other foods. The following diet therefore has a heavy reliance on these food types.
A lot of the recommendations here can and should be applied long term, so make them part of their lifestyle.
Upon waking: 500ml of luke warm water, lemon juice, serving of greens powder.
Why: After sleeping the body is in a prime position for natural cleansing and in a heightened state of autophagy (from the overnight fast). We should therefore take full advantage of this to boost results.
Luke warm water causes vasodilation in the stomach, increasing blood flow and reducing gut stress, thus increasing efficiency and increasing metabolic rate.
Freshly squeezed lemon juice acts as a liver tonic and assists in the digestive process by cleansing the detoxification pathways.
Greens powder is full of vitamins and minerals, loaded with free radical absorbing antioxidants, packed with a load of alkalising properties to balance the body’s pH levels.
Morning: Eat organic whole eggs.
Why: By under eating at this part of the day and consuming only protein and fats, we are prolonging the autophagy aspect of the diet.
Eggs are also a modern superfood, loaded with amino acids that can also help with phase 2 of the liver detoxification process. In addition, egg yolks contain important nutrients that improve liver health and aid the transportation of fats in the body.
Lunch: Consume a meal that consists of:
A meat that can fly, swim or run;
Vegetables that are green and grown in the ground;
Add 5-10g Omega 3 fish oil.
Why: By keeping to a low carb diet, we are prolonging the ketogenic state we created from the previous night’s fast, thus improving autophagy.
Fish oil is an essential supplement, and has been shown to be a key component in cellular health. The result can be a drastic improvement in the quality of cell membranes.
Snack or post workout shake: Whey Protein Shake + Creatine
Why: Whey protein is loaded with amino acids that fuel the internal cells powerful antioxidant machinery, ensuring they are functioning optimally to fight free radicals.
Creatine also acts as an antioxidant in skeletal muscle tissue.
Evening meal: Same as lunch.
Daily fresh water recommendations:
Men: at least 3 litres per day
Women: at least 2 litres per day
Foods to avoid:
Both gluten (found in grains such as wheat) and casein (milk protein) can inhibit the uptake of cysteine, which the body needs to make glutathione.
It is therefore recommended to avoid these foods during this protocol.
Antioxidant vitamins like vitamin C, beta-carotene, and vitamin E are obviously quite important in protecting the liver from damage as well as helping in the detoxification mechanisms, but even simple nutrients like B-vitamins, calcium, and trace minerals are critical in the elimination of heavy metals and other toxic compounds from the body.
The lipotropic agents, choline, betaine, methionine, vitamin B6, folic acid, and vitamin B12, are useful as they promote the flow of fat and bile to and from the liver.
Lipotropic formulas appear to increase the levels of SAM and glutathione. Methionine, choline, and betaine have been shown to increase the levels of SAM too.
Supplementation of minerals such as zinc and magnesium would also be beneficial during this time too.
Milk thistle also shows to have a positive impact on protecting the liver from damage and enhancing the detoxification pathways.
Milk thistle, or to be exact, silymarin (extracted flavonoids), prevents damage to the liver through several mechanisms: by acting as an antioxidant, by increasing the synthesis of glutathione and by increasing the rate of liver tissue regeneration.
Silymarin also enhances detoxification by increasing levels of glutathione.
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References & Further Reading