Detoxification – who wouldn’t want to cleanse their body of toxins? No wonder! We’re exposed to a sizeable number of environmental chemicals every day. We get these exposures from the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the products we put on our skin. Research shows pollutants in the air contribute to health problems like asthma and contribute to heart disease as well. In addition, studies show certain airborne pollutants can reach the brain where they may contribute to brain aging and dementia. Some of these environmental toxins, like BPA in plastic, are called “obesogens,” meaning they may impact the growing problem of obesity as well.
Unfortunately, you can’t completely avoid toxins, unless you live in a bubble. Because these pollutants are so pervasive, “detox” supplements, teas, and cleanses are growing in popularity. Supposedly, these products help your body eliminate toxins and reduce the toxic burden your body is under. Yet, from a scientific perspective, these overpriced cleanses and concoctions do little but siphon money out of your wallet. Once you know HOW your body detoxifies, you’ll understand why these products are of no value.
Your Body Has Its Own Ways of Detoxifying
We wouldn’t survive very long if our body didn’t have a way to remove toxins. The master organ for doing this is the liver. Your liver uses a two-step process to help your body flush out toxins and it does this without the help of a commercial detox cleanser. Phase one of liver detoxification is where a potentially harmful substance is temporarily converted to a form that dissolves in water. From there, it passes to phase two. During phase two, enzymes in your liver attach chemical groups to the altered toxins that make it easier for you to flush them out in your urine or bile.
How can you maximize the effectiveness of your own liver detox? The key is to keep these phases in balance by ensuring each one is working efficiently. If phase one works faster than phase two, water-soluble toxins won’t be modified quickly enough and will build up. That’s not a good thing since, in some cases, phase one converts a substance into a potentially carcinogenic form. If phase 2 doesn’t pick it up promptly and modify it further, it could hang around and be damaging. That’s why it’s important to keep the two phases in balance. It’s amazing that your liver is able to detoxify such a wide variety of chemicals and toxins that you’re exposed to every day.
As mentioned, you eliminate some toxins, after they’re modified by the liver, through your kidneys and urine. Some toxins also enter bile through which they’re eliminated in your feces. So, the best way to rid your body of toxins is to keep your liver healthy. That means protecting your liver against toxins that directly injure it. These include alcohol and some medications, including over-the-counter medications, like acetaminophen. Most people don’t realize that acetaminophen at higher doses can damage your liver.
Another way to reduce toxin build-up is to reduce your exposure to them. How do you do this? Don’t smoke, eat organic when possible, use organic personal care products, and don’t store food or beverages in plastic containers.
Are There Legitimate Ways to Help Your Body Detoxify?
Reducing exposure to toxins should be the first step, but the proper diet also helps your body optimization detoxification. Fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals that help balance the phase one and two enzymes in your liver. Of these, cruciferous vegetables pack the most detox punch. Studies show that cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, upregulate liver enzymes involved in phase two detoxification. This keeps liver detox flowing smoothly without the build-up of intermediates from phase one.
Other foods that support phase two detoxification include garlic, rosemary, and soy, as well as flavonoids in fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, grapefruit juice has the opposite effect. It interferes with phase two detoxification in the liver. Since phase two reactions are also important for breaking down medications, taking grapefruit juice with some drugs, can cause the blood levels because of the medication to rise. This is true of statin medications that many Americans take to lower cholesterol. Never drink grapefruit juice if you’re taking medications without consulting your doctor first.
What about your digestive tract? How much fiber are you getting in your diet? It matters. Fiber binds to some toxins so that they’re eliminated through your digestive tract rather than absorbed into your bloodstream. Foods high in fiber also support the growth of healthy gut bacteria that play a role in toxin elimination and breakdown.
Also, avoid processed foods. It’s debatable whether food additives, like preservatives, flavorings, emulsifiers, and colorings, contribute to our toxic burden, but why place chemicals in your body that it doesn’t easily recognize? You’re getting enough exposure to chemicals from the air you breathe.
Just as importantly, eat a balanced, diet of nutrient-dense foods. The systems that detoxify your body require a number of co-factors, including magnesium, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folate to function properly. Make sure you’re choosing whole foods and consuming at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Also, a diet rich in minerals, like calcium, magnesium, and zinc, helps reduce the absorption of heavy metals you might be exposed to through the environment. These minerals do this by blocking sites where heavy metals are taken up.
What about Supplements?
Isolated supplements don’t always have the same benefits since they lack synergy with other nutrients. One supplement that preliminary studies show supports liver health is silymarin in milk thistle – but more research is needed.
You might think that taking antioxidant supplements would be beneficial. Although oxidative damage is harmful to your body, antioxidant supplements don’t offer the same benefits as antioxidants in whole foods. Some studies show supplemental antioxidants may cause harm. That’s why it’s best to get your antioxidants from whole food sources rather than supplements.
The Bottom Line
Yes, detoxification is vital for health but commercial detox cleanses aren’t the solution. Focus on lowering your exposure to toxins and pollutants in the environment, on getting enough micronutrients, and on keeping your master detox organ, your liver, as healthy as possible.
Time Health. “Toxic Air Pollution Can Penetrate the Brain: Study”
Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2001 Jul 15;174(2):146-52.
WebMD. “Liver Detoxification — Fact or Fad?”
Textbook of Functional Medicine. The Institute for Functional Medicine 2010.