Detoxification is a popular topic in the health field, and it’s also a controversial one. There are a vast number of detoxification protocols, diets, supplements and products, each with vocal proponents and detractors. Advocates for detoxing tout its benefits, while detoxification naysayers claim that detoxing is a scam designed to cleanse you of nothing but your money. When it comes to detoxification, what’s true and what’s false? Let’s get into the truth about detoxification.
What Is Detoxification?
We are constantly exposed to toxins in our environment, including the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. We are also exposed to toxins in the home. Our bodies are regularly filtering toxins that enter our bodies, which include:
- Heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, nickel, aluminum)
- Pesticides, insecticides and herbicides
- Drugs (prescription and recreational)
- Food additives
- Chemicals in Cookware
- Cleaning products
- Personal care products
- Building materials
- Plastics (particularly bisphenol A and bisphenol S)
- Paints and solvents
We process and get rid of wastes through our digestive tract, skin, lungs, kidneys and liver. The liver has over 500 jobs and plays an enormous role in the detoxification process, which allows us to disarm and eliminate harmful toxins (the liver also helps us get rid of normal body chemicals like hormones and neurotransmitters so they don’t accumulate).
There are two phases of liver detoxification: Phase 1 and Phase 2. During the first phase, the liver breaks down toxins into intermediates that will be dealt with in Phase 2, where they can be neutralized and excreted. During both of these phases, we need certain nutrients to activate enzymes that ensure this process happens as it should.
Detoxification detractors say that detox happens all the time and if it didn’t, we’d all be in grave danger. This is true. Detoxing is a process that will happen regardless; however, there are times when we need more support. The claim that detoxing will occur no matter what we do works under the assumption that our bodies are always functioning at an optimal level and are able to properly dispose of the harmful toxins we encounter. And this isn’t always the case.
When I explain detoxification to my clients, I use the analogy of a dishwasher in a restaurant. If there is a manageable flow of dishes coming in to the kitchen and the dishwasher can handle the load easily, then all is well. But, if there is a rush in the restaurant and too many dishes come in, or the dishwasher takes a break or slows down, or there is extra messes aside from the dishes to deal with, then we develop a problem keeping those dishes clean.
If the liver is overburdened with toxins, various endogenous (from inside the body) and exogenous (from outside the body) chemicals can build up to dangerous levels. We need to take measures to assist the liver in catching up with the demand.
Toxin Exposure and Accumulation in Body Tissues
Our environment is saturated with toxins and these can accumulate in our body tissues, potentially leading to harmful effects. For example:
- A small study of umbilical cord blood found it contained 287 chemicals, such as pesticides, flame retardants and Teflon. 180 of the chemicals found are cancer-causing and 217 are harmful to the brain and nervous system.
- A small study in the Toronto area of umbilical cord blood found 137 chemicals, including pesticides, dioxins, mercury, lead, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs, found in non-stick coatings).
- An analysis of 77 pregnant women found similar chemicals mentioned in the two studies above, yet the concentration of these chemicals was higher in the fetuses than in the mothers.
- Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of the most-used chemicals in the world. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that 93% of Americans over the age of six had BPA in their urine. BPA sticks around and accummulates, acting as a hormone disruptor and can increase the risk of hormone-dependent cancers, polycystic ovary syndrome, infertility, early puberty and negatively affect child behaviour and cognition.
- The increasing exposure to chemicals such as BPA, phthalates, pesticides, dioxins, PCBs and arsenic may be linked to insulin sensitivity and diabetes.
- An analysis of samples from employees discovered that the office environment led to an increase in body burden of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a flame retardant that interferes with neurodevelopment and can cause cognitive and behavioural impairment.
- Even though there has been a steep decline in dioxin use over the last few decades, we are still exposed to it through our food, particularly in animal products as it’s stored in fat tissues. Dioxins are a family of chemicals that can cause cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and developmental problems in children.
- A study of chemical plant workers showed that those with more effective detoxification enzyme activity were less likely to develop bladder cancer.
- Ineffective function of cytochrome P-450s, a large collection of enzymes that aid detoxification, can lead to cancer, atherosclerosis and diabetes.
- This in-depth analysis of heavy metal toxicity in the environment concluded that heavy metals are associated with “adverse health effects in humans, including cardiovascular diseases, developmental abnormalities, neurologic and neurobehavioral disorders, diabetes, hearing loss, hematologic and immunologic disorders, and various types of cancer.”
These chemicals can place extra pressure on the liver and our other detoxification pathways, making it more difficult for us to clear them. Plus, consider the number of health challenges we commonly deal with – obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, cancer – that can also impact our ability to effectively handle our toxic burden.
The Phytonutrient Gap
In 2009, The Nutrilite Health Institute published America’s Phytonutrient Report using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (surveys that capture what Americans eat daily) and supplemental nutrient concentration data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Phytonutrients are plant compounds in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and teas that benefit our health and prevent disease. Many phytonutrients also support detoxification.
The report found that 8 out of 10 Americans had a ‘phytonutrient gap’ and only 3-12% were getting the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. Government recommended daily intakes (RDIs) are usually the bare minimum we need to maintain good health and often, we need much more than what is recommended – especially if we are dealing with a health problem.
As I mentioned earlier in the post, our liver needs certain nutrients in order to support detoxification processes. If we are falling short of nutrients, detoxification may not occur as effectively and potentially lead to toxin accumulation, basically the pile of unwashed dishes.
Best Foods, Nutrients, Supplements and Herbs for Detoxification
Our diet plays a role in both activating (and inhibiting) detoxification. It’s important to distinguish between consuming foods that enhance detoxification and the punishing, gimmicky diets that claim to be a cure-all. When detoxification naysayers claim that diet is irrelevant to detoxing, they are typically referring to those short-term cleanses or extreme fad diets. This is not how everyone detoxes, nor is this optimal in the long-term. When I work with clients on detoxification protocols, I don’t recommend they subsist on lemon water and cayenne or green juice for a week and then return to whatever they were doing before.
Detoxification is about using specific detoxifying foods, nutrients, supplements and herbs to help support our natural detoxification processes. Toxins don’t accumulate in only a week, therefore they aren’t going to disappear after a week of drinking celery juice either. That’s why my detoxification recommendations are for at least a couple of months, or longer depending on the issue being addressed. My aim is to help others build sustainable, healthy habits and regular detoxification practices that will help us deal with the chemical burden we encounter on an ongoing basis.
Best Foods for Detoxification
Garlic’s strong odor and flavour are indicative of its very powerful health-promoting compounds. It helps to regulate the enzymes that assist with detoxification, and can help us bind and excrete heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and cadmium. One of garlic’s constituents, allicin, has been shown to increase liver enzymes and help to detoxify carcinogens.
Turmeric (Curcuma Longa)
This brightly coloured spice contains a strong compound called curcumin, which is responsible for many of turmeric’s beneficial properties. Curcumin helps to enhance Phase 2 detoxification enzymes, protect against liver injury and offers broad-spectrum liver support. It also helps shield the liver from heavy metal damage and bolsters stores of glutathione – the major antioxidant that protects us from free radical damage.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
Cilantro is a well-known heavy metal chelator that allows us to excrete metals such as mercury and lead, as well as other toxic chemicals such as phthalates, plasticizers and insecticides. If you can’t stand the taste of cilantro, try parsley instead.
Brazil nuts are rich in selenium, an antioxidant mineral that is crucial to the formation of glutathione. They can help us detoxify from heavy metals such as mercury and you only need to eat a couple of them daily to receive your minimum recommended amount of selenium.
Crucifers like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and bok choy help to activate, enhance and modulate both Phase 1 and Phase 2 detoxification. They contain glucosinolates, which break down into several sub-compounds (more about that below) that help to excrete excess hormones and break down carcinogens.
Best Phytonutrients for Detoxification
This compound helps to enhance glucuronidation, a metabolic process that helps us excrete dangerous chemicals. It also helps to activate the enzymes that trigger detoxification and increases glutathione s-trasferase, a set of enzymes that bind the antioxidant glutathione to toxins so we can get rid of them. Ellagic acid, as an antioxidant, reduces inflammation, has anti-cancer properties, and protects us from DNA damage.
An antioxidant that is widely found in fruits and vegetables (especially apples and onions), as well as olive oil and tea. It helps to increase glucuronidation and glutathione levels, helps to chelate (bind to) heavy metals. and encourages the liver enzymes that lead to detoxification.
Resveratrol is an antioxidant that has a therapeutic effect on the liver, increases the production of glutathione, helps to induce Phase 2 detoxification enzymes, and has anti-cancer properties. Wine is well-known as a major source of resveratrol, but given that alcohol places burden on the liver, it’s better to consume it from grapes, mulberries and cacao.
These are the breakdown products of glucosinonates. Some of the main detoxifying isothiocyanates include indole-3 carbinol (I3C), Diindolylmethane (DIM) and sulphoraphane. I3C and DIM can help induce Phase 1 detoxification enzymes, which have been shown to help protect against prostate cancer and breast cancer by breaking down carcinogens. Isothiocynates also help to regulate estrogen levels by improving the good hydroxylation of estrogen and decreasing the bad. You can find these compounds in cruciferous vegetables such as kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.
Found in green tea (camellia sinensis), EGCG helps to enhance Phase 2 detoxification enzymes and binds to toxic compounds. This detoxifying effect helps to inhibit the pathways of various types of cancer.
Best Supplements and Herbs for Detoxification
Iron is required for the production of all of the Phase 1 detoxification enzymes. It also plays a key role in energy production, and detoxification is energy-dependant. Iron deficiency can lead to an increased absorption of cadmium.
Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)
Milk thistle enhances glutathione production, helps with liver protection and liver regeneration, and activates Phase 2 detoxification enzymes. It also encourages elimination of wastes and supports kidney function.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
This supplement can help detoxify heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, both known carcinogens. Chlorella can help rid us of heavy metals such as cadmium, methylmercury and lead. It also contains small amounts of minerals like magnesium, zinc and copper, all of which contribute to enzyme and antioxidant production.
Other Ways to Enhance Detoxification
Aside from diet, herbs and supplements, there are other ways for us to enhance detoxification. The first step is to reduce exposure to toxins wherever possible. We can’t control everything, but we can reduce toxin exposure by:
- Purchasing organic food, or food with very low pesticide residues outlined by The Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce
- Reduce and eliminate plastics
- Purchase or make natural personal care products
- Use natural, non-toxic home cleaning products
- Use non-toxic cookware
Other ways we can support detoxification include:
- Drink plenty of water
- Ensure you are having regular bowel movements, as the colon is a major elimination channel for waste.
- Try dry skin brushing
- Use an infrared sauna or dry sauna
- Breathe deeply (meditation or yoga is a great way to do this)
It’s important to work with a health care practitioner on a detoxification protocol that is customized for your needs. One-size-fits-all doesn’t always work, which is why those fad diets and boxed cleanses aren’t effective for many people, nor are they sustainable in the long term. By creating a detoxification protocol that is gentle, practical and effective, we can support our detoxification pathways for optimal health.