How to optimize your body’s detoxification systems.
The average person carries 91 toxic chemicals in their blood and urine. This is a testament to the fact that our exposure to new-to-nature chemicals is greater than it’s ever been during our evolution and how crucial it is to support our body’s ability to neutralize and remove these toxins. Left unchecked, these exposures to environmental contaminants can wreak havoc on your health: chemicals in the environment play a role in mental health issues, neurodegenerative disorders, kidney and liver disease, autoimmunity, cancer, as well as obesity and diabetes. Part one of our coverage of detoxification looked how to avoid toxins; part two will tell you how to support your body’s ability to remove them.
There are many diets and products on the market that purport to help you “detox.” Note, though, that the body is generally very effective at detoxifying itself, as long as it has the proper vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Many of the products being marketed as “detox” teas, juices, powders, etc., are billed as quick fixes. Some of these products may work to push toxins out, but they may not help address underlying problems that impair detoxification like missing critical nutrients—meaning the toxins could circulate and reabsorb.
Detoxification refers to the metabolic pathway that processes unwanted chemicals—both foreign substances and byproducts of the body’s natural processes—for elimination and is comprised of three steps. Phase I detoxification involves using enzymes to break down toxins from fat-soluble compounds to water-soluble compounds—the results of phase I are often more toxic than the original compound. Phase II detoxification further increases the water solubility of the compounds from phase I and decreases their toxicity. Phase III deals with the excretion of the water-soluble compounds created throughout phase I and II via the liver or the kidneys.
The balance of phase I and phase II detoxification is crucial. As noted above, the products of phase I detoxification are often more toxic than the original compound. This isn’t a problem if phase II enzymes are functioning at a rate sufficient to neutralize the phase I products, but various factors can throw this delicate balance off and produce a situation on which harmful metabolites are produced faster than they can be detoxified. These factors include diet (charbroiled meats induce phase I activity without inducing phase II enzymes), smoking and alcohol consumption (which induce phase I activity), age (which decreases phase II activity), disease (diseases of the liver compromise detoxification), and genetics (that is, genetic differences cause some to have enzymes with lower activity, meaning they do not detoxify through certain pathways as quickly as others). A fast Phase 1 and slow phase 2 person, due to SNPs, is the worst (and very common) scenario. That’s why it’s really good to work with a professional.
The lymphatic system is also crucial to detoxification. The lymph system carries cellular waste and other toxins to the lymph nodes, which act like a garbage disposal. Illness, lack of physical activity, and not drinking enough water can slow down the lymph system. Symptoms of a lymph system that is not operating correctly are: fatigue, brain fog, puffy skin, swollen and stiff joints, chronic headaches, and inflammation. Natural ways to cleanse the lymph system are eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, sleeping in loose fitting clothing (the body goes through a natural detox process at night, so you don’t want to constrict the movement of the lymph system), exercise, and practice mindful breathing to minimize stress on the lymph system.
Supporting Optimal Detoxification
Given that it involves an incredibly diverse array of enzymes and transport proteins, detoxification is dependent on a large number of nutrients. A 2014 review found that diets rich in fruits and vegetables helps protect against environmental toxic stressors. Other evidence shows that adequate intakes of minerals reduces uptake of heavy metals. Conversely, inflammatory diets, such as those high in processed foods, increase the toxic effects of PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls). Generally speaking, exposures to toxins and toxicants induce chronic oxidative stress and a dysregulated immune response; anti-inflammatory foods like fruits and vegetables help protect against these effects.
Efficient phase I reactions require several micronutrients, including vitamins A, B2 and B3, folate, C, E, iron, calcium, copper, zinc, magnesium, and selenium. A wide variety of compounds are known to stimulate and support phase II enzymes, including: EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) from green tea, resveratrol, curcumin, alpha lipoic acid, alpha tocopherol (a form of vitamin E), lycopene (a red carotenoid found in tomatoes, grapefruit, watermelon, and other red fruits and vegetables), apple polyphenols, capsaicin (found in peppers), and many others.
We’ve written previously about the importance of N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC), which is a precursor to glutathione, one of the body’s most important antioxidants and detoxifying agents. Milk thistle is also widely recommended by integrative experts for supporting detoxification, lowering oxidative stress in the liver, and conserving glutathione levels.
As alluded to above, genetics plays an important role in detoxification because our genes code for the various enzymes that carry out these processes. This means that you could be faster than others at detoxifying caffeine or alcohol, but slower at breaking down histamine or prescription medications. Additionally, detoxification of various compounds from pesticides, cigarette smoke, and grilled/charred meats can be compromised by polymorphisms in CYP1A1 or CYP1A2 genes that code for enzymes involved in Phase 1 detoxification.
Optimizing our body’s ability to detoxify requires us to support the methylation process, one of the reactions that occurs in phase II. If we think of the body as a complex machine with many gears and switches, methylation is the mechanism that allows the gears to function and it also turns switches on and off. Methylation requires B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, choline, glycine, betaine, and methionine to function properly. We discussed methylation and the genetic SNPs that can affect it in our article on genetics.
We also know that a growing subset of the population has a genetic predisposition to multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). MCS is a condition that affects an estimated 13 percent of the US population, nearly 43 million people. Some speculate that certain patients with MCS have a genetic variation that prevents the production of glutathione, thus impairing the body’s ability to detoxify.
Promoting gut health is another factor in optimizing our detoxification systems. Probiotics have been shown to reduce mercury and arsenic levels in pregnant women and children; in vitro experiments have shown that probiotics decreased pesticide accumulation. Certain probiotic species can help digest endotoxins (bacterial toxins) and reduce the toxin’s uptake in the body by supporting tight junctions in the intestinal lining. Other studies have shown that probiotics can reduce heavy metal absorption.
Finally, exercise is beneficial as it increases blood levels of glutathione.
The bottom line: Given all of the factors that influence detoxification, it is best to work with an integrative medical practitioner to determine the best detox program that takes into account your genetic background, gut health, diet, lifestyle, and known chemical exposures.
Health from the Ground Up: