Are you feeling sluggish or lethargic? Have you put on a few extra pounds? Is your skin blemished? Should you invest in a detox program?
We are continually exposed to toxins from food additives, drugs, insecticides, pesticides, chemicals, pollutants, heavy metals and even substances produced within our own intestinal tracts. Collectively, the term for these toxins is xenobiotics. Exposure to xenobiotics can compromise the function of our nervous, immune, endocrine, cardiovascular, pulmonary, musculoskeletal, hepatobiliary and renal systems.
What is Detoxification?
The mechanism by which our bodies deal with xenobiotic exposure is through detoxification, a process strongly influenced by our diets. The concept of "total load" of xenobiotics is very important in determining how effectively the body can handle the cumulative exposure to toxins. If the "total load" of xenobiotics exceeds the body's ability to process and eliminate them, then toxicity can ensue (Bland, 1995).
Types of Detoxification
Detoxification is thought to occur through the major organs associated with elimination. These include:
1. Hepatic (liver)
2. Renal (kidneys)
3. Digestive system (gut)
4. Respiratory system (lungs)
5. Integumentary system (skin)
Detoxification has become a buzzword among celebrities and some alternative healthcare providers, who promote various products and protocols that are claimed to detoxify and cleanse the body.
Many of these products include botanical laxatives and diuretics, along with herbs that support liver function. Theoretically, these products can stimulate the organs of detoxification and elimination.
Rather than purchasing a detox kit from your local supplement store, online or from an infomercial (all of which can be pricey and of questionable efficacy and safety), consider examining the foods you eat and chemicals to which you are exposed to. Use this information to reduce your toxic load by adopting a diet and lifestyle that supports ongoing detoxification.
Approaching detoxification through food and lifestyle comes with the added benefit of reducing inflammation, the underlying mechanism of many diseases.
The body has a very intricate system for detoxing xenobiotics. Within the liver there are two phases of detoxification. Phase I takes place in the cytosol and involves oxidation, reduction and/or hydrolysis in an attempt to reduce the toxicity of the chemical.
The second phase (Phase II) of detoxification occurs in the cytochrome P- 450 enzyme system in the membranes of the endoplasmic reticulum, resulting in conjugation. This process attaches a variety of compounds to the chemical, altering its size, polarity and solubility so that it may be removed from the body (Rogers, 1992).
The Benefits of Phytochemicals for Detoxification
Phytochemicals found in colorful plant foods have been shown to support the detoxification process. The main mechanisms of action of phytochemicals are: antioxidant activities, modulation of detoxification enzymes, decreasing of platelet aggregation, alterations in cholesterol metabolism, control of concentrations of steroid hormones and endocrine metabolism, reduction of blood pressure, and antibacterial and antiviral activities.
Some foods high in phytochemicals include cruciferous vegetables (such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli), dark green leafy vegetables (such as kale, spinach and chard), berries, garlic, ginger, onions and phenolic compounds found in green tea (Ferrari, 2003) (Kensler, 2005).
A powerful antioxidant called glutathione also plays a critical role in detoxification as a cofactor for many antioxidants, as well as its role in mitochondrial function. Glutathione can be depleted by eating conventional foods that are high in pesticides and insecticides, as well as with alcohol consumption.
Glutathione can be increased by taking supplements such as alpha lipoic acid and N-acetylcysteine (NAC). Interestingly, those who practice meditation have 20% higher levels of glutathione, thus substantiating the mind-body connection and the effect of stress on the body (Pizzorno, 2014).
You lose water every day through your breath, perspiration, urine and bowel movements. For your body to function properly, you must replenish its water supply by consuming beverages and foods that contain water.
Scientific studies validating the common recommendation of 8, 8 ounce glasses of water are lacking. According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an adequate intake (AI) for men is roughly 3 liters (about 13 cups) of total beverages a day and 2.2 liters (about 9 cups) of total beverages a day for women. Individual needs should be determined based on health status, diet, activity levels and the environment.
From a detoxification perspective, water theoretically helps by keeping your bowels, kidneys and other organs functioning better (Valtin, 2002) (Mayo Clinic, 2011). Optimum fluid intake has been shown to prevent certain types of cancer, along with heart disease and other conditions. Other benefits of optimum fluid intake include weight loss, better bowel function, and better glomerular filtration rate (GFR) which can equate to better kidney function.
The Digestive System
The gut has been a major target for those doing a cleanse. Fiber is an essential component of ongoing detoxification and gastrointestinal health. Unfortunately, in general, people eat about half of the 30 to 35 grams of daily fiber that is recommended.
A university of Illinois study showed that dietary fiber promotes a shift in the gut toward different types of beneficial bacteria, such as acidophilus (Hooda, 2012). As these microbes ferment fiber in the intestine, short-chain fatty acids and other metabolites are produced, resulting in many health benefits, including a reduction in the risk for type 2 diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer, and autoimmune disorders.
Jeffrey Bland, PhD., of the Institute for Functional Medicine, developed a program to manage gastrointestinal health that he calls the Four R Program. The Four R Program includes:
Remove: In this phase one removes the common allergy-producing foods, which for some includes gluten and dairy products. A hypoallergenic rotation diet consisting of rice-based products, legumes, fruits, vegetables, fish and poultry is then followed.
Replace Phase: The body naturally secretes digestive enzymes and acid to break down food. In this phase, the use of digestive aids, such as digestive enzymes, is recommended to be taken with meals.
Reinoculate Phase: In order to improve intestinal function, probiotics are recommended, along with a prebiotic supplement such as inulin, fructooligosaccharides or arabinogalactans. Prebiotics are specific food fibers that are used by the friendly probiotic organisms as their 'food" in the intestinal tract to improve their therapeutic value. Examples of probiotics include Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Bifidobacteria.
Probiotics may be valuable in detoxification by increasing Phase II detoxifying enzymes in the body. Some foods containing probiotics include yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi (Brudnak, 2002).
Repair Phase: Nutrient supplements are used in this phase to promote proper repair of the intestinal lining. These supplements can include the amino acid L-glutamine, pantothenic acid, zinc citrate, omega 3 EPA/fish oil and vitamin E as mixed tocopherols.
The Four R Program should be followed under the supervision of a qualified healthcare provider.
The Respiratory System
Oxygen is one of the most important nutrients in the human body. Inefficient respiration can compromise tissue and organ function. Shallow breathing (chest breathing) results in decreased oxygen flow, fewer nutrients delivered to tissues, and less waste removed.
Conversely, diaphragmatic breathing provides more tissue oxygenation, invoking a relaxation response within the body. Additionally, it helps the lymphatics, your body’s waste disposal system, carry away toxic substances.
Supporting the respiratory system can be done through regular exercise as well as deep breathing exercises. In a study by Li, Qigong therapy, which incorporates breathing with movement, was found to be effective in heroin detoxification (Li, 2002).
The Integumentary System
Sweating is an excellent way to eliminate toxins through the skin. Exercise, as well as taking a sauna, can promote detoxification through this pathway. Existing evidence supports the use of saunas as a component of depuration (purification or cleansing) protocols for environmentally-induced illness (Crinion, 2011).
Macronutrients and Fasting
Macronutrients include protein, carbohydrate and fat. Diets adequate in protein appear to enhance rates of xenobiotic metabolism in humans. Carbohydrate intake also plays an important role in normalizing the detoxification process. The best carbohydrates to consume during a detoxification program are those that are readily absorbed and do not ferment in the gastrointestinal tract, such as rice. Specific types of dietary fats may improve hepatic detoxification, such as medium-chain fatty acids found in coconut oil (Bland, 1995).
Adverse Food Reactions and Toxicity
Food allergies or sensitivities can adversely affect gastrointestinal mucosal integrity, increasing gut permeability to food antigens, which, in turn, can produce systemic reactions by releasing proinflammatory substances that alter hepatic detoxification. There is a saying that “one man’s food is another man’s poison.” If you have recurrent health problems, it may be worth seeing a licensed practitioner who can assess the possibility of adverse food reactions as a potential cause of toxicity (Bland, 1995).
A Note on Fasting
Fasting has been employed as a popular means of detoxification. Unfortunately, fasting can actually impair detoxification by depleting critical nutrients such as glutathione, which are necessary for proper detoxification of xenobiotics (Bland, 1995) (Pizzorno, 2014).
Detoxification should not be considered a cleanse or short vacation from a diet and lifestyle that leads you to thinking that you need to do a “cleanse.” Instead, ongoing support of your detoxification system through diet and lifestyle modification, as well as identifying and limiting your toxic exposure, will likely be a key to health and wellbeing.
Make sure to include regular exercise to encourage sweating and tissue oxygenation, saunas to promote sweating, staying hydrated and lastly, investigating the possibility for adverse food reactions.
The Environmental Working Group is a great resource for discovering chemicals in our diets, cleaning products and personal care products to which we are exposed on a daily basis.
Dr. Geoff’s Detox Smoothie
1 cup water
1 cup organic berries
1 organic apple
1 cup organic kale
A few mint leaves
1/2 tsp. raw ginger
2 tbsp. hemp seeds
1 tbsp. organic extra virgin coconut oil
Combine and blend ingredients well. Serve chilled
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Crinnion, W. (2011). Sauna as a valuable clinical tool for cardiovascular, autoimmune, toxicant-induced and other chronic health problems. Alternative Medicine Review. 16(3):215-225.
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