The body will naturally detox itself without any aid whatsoever and to put it bluntly, if it stops, you die very quickly.
Whilst you don’t need a ‘special diet’ to detox, you can influence the speed of certain aspects of the body's own detoxification processes.
The detox process has three phases and involves multiple organs and systems. It requires specific molecules to act as cofactors and genetics, metabolic functions, diet and environmental factors all impact the body's ability to detox efficiently.
What is the most important organ to detox?
The liver is the key organ of the detox process, but other organs such as the spleen, kidneys and gastrointestinal (GI) tract also have a considerable role to play:
- The spleen is involved in the turnover of red blood cells which impacts bile production, a crucial part of the 3rd phase of the detox process
- Kidneys filter blood to produce waste urine and are vital in the control of hydration and blood pressure that both impact the detox process directly through phase 1 and indirectly via liver congestion
- The GI tract houses 50% of the body's lymphatic tissue which communicates the systemic immune need to the liver directly via the portal vein
The detox process is broken down into three distinct phases: modification, conjugation and elimination.
Modification is an oxidative process which means it uses REDOX (reduction and oxidation) requiring water and a number of cofactors (e.g. NADH, NADPH, B6 & Magnesium) to transform toxic compounds into water-soluble compounds ready for elimination. You can read the full process here
Speed of modification is predominantly controlled by genetics but can be altered by both environmental and dietary changes. Note. Speeding up isn’t necessarily best.
- Alcohol, Nicotine & Steroids
- Cruciferous vegetables (high in Indole-3)
- High protein diets
- Citrus fruits other than grapefruit
- Vitamin B1, B3 & C
- Pesticides, car fumes, paint fumes
- Carroway, dill seed
- Specific medications (such as antihistamines and oral contraceptives)
- Heavy metals (check here)
- High levels of sugar and trans fats
- Grapefruit juices, turmeric, curcumin, cloves and capsicums
- Toxic compounds from the GI tract due to pathogenic bacteria and undigested/poorly food
Phase 2 - What is Conjugation?
Conjugation means to join, and that is what this detox phase does.
It takes the metabolite being processed from phase 1 and adds a specific molecule depending on which pathway is used to prepare it for elimination via urine or bile.
Conjugation has six main pathways.
- Amino acid pathway (Glycine, Glutamine, Taurine, Arginine and Ornithine)
- Glutathione pathway
- Acetylation pathway
- Methylation pathway
- Glucuronidation pathway
- Sulfation pathway
Each conjugation detox pathway has specific metabolites it deals with, but some are more important than others.
For example, the glutathione pathway mainly processes fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble compounds ready for elimination, and around 60% of the toxins eliminated by bile are processed by the glutathione pathway.
Each Detox pathway in phase 2 has its unique parts to play in keeping the body healthy.
Shortages in the key nutrients or the cofactors needed to run these pathways efficiently can not only lead to problems in the liver itself but also in the systems distal to the liver. Read more about phase 2 here
Phase 3 - Elimination
Elimination of toxins is precisely what detox diets claim to do, and many of them use botanicals that act as diuretics (increase urination) or cholagogues (stimulate bile release).
While these supplements or nutrients may increase liver drainage, they may be utterly useless if phase 1 or 2 are not optimally functioning and similarly, there is no point in increasing the speed of phase 1 or 2 if elimination is not in sync.
An example of this is using a chelator such as coriander, reported to help bind and remove toxic metals, however all three phases need to be working for this to be effective.
Outside of stimulating a detox by increasing liver drainage, we must also consider if the kidneys can deal with the increased load, if we are hydrated enough to dilute the toxic waste and if we are creating bile well enough to cope.
Hydration sounds simple but involves amino acid availability and electrolyte balance inside all the cells of the body. Stress, poor diet, low nutritional diversity and minimal water intake may all have adverse effects on the detox process.
We may also want to consider how we can support elimination through improving gut health (again this will look different for different people) and if hydrated, through sweating toxins out in exercise or saunas.
How do the three phases of detoxification connect?
For those with a keen eye, they may have noticed a few overlaps within each pathway. The first thing we need to address is the fact that phase 1 of the detox process creates free radicals.
How does the body deal with free radicals?
The body's primary coping mechanism for dealing with this is using nutrients such as glutathione, vitamin C and other antioxidants that also play a role in phase 2 of the detox process.
Therefore increasing the speed of phase 1 modification may deplete nutrients needed for the 2nd phase (conjugation) and ultimately cause stagnation of the detox process.
How does red blood cell health impact elimination?
Phase 3 of the detox process, elimination, also relies on sufficient bile production, which is reliant on methylation's impact on red blood cell health and glucuronidation to create the final product of bile. No amount of diuretics or cholagogues to increase liver drainage will aid the detox process if bile production is stalled and dehydration is occurring.
The speed food travels through the GI tract has a large impact on the potential for toxic re-absorption. If the intestinal walls are damaged, ‘leaky’ or motility is stalled, the chance of toxic-laden bile being re-absorbed increases. No matter what speed the liver can process toxins if they are re-entering hepatic circulation your detox plan will fail.
Should I take laxatives to detoxify?
That being said, we don’t need colon cleansing or colonic irrigation or extreme laxatives to ‘detoxify’ and if anything these are more harmful than good. You need to instead work on your overall gut health, which can be as simple as increasing levels of fibre in the diet e.g. with fruit, vegetables, quinoa, oats and nuts.
What part of detoxification should I target?
The above may seem a little daunting and difficult to know where to start; it is essential to understand which phases need the most help when looking to improve one's personal detox process.
Symptoms of excessive modification
- Rapid caffeine metabolism - people who can drink caffeine at night with no impacts on sleep
- Anxiety or nervousness
Symptoms of slow modification
- Sensitivity to chemicals - perfumes, cleaning products etc. make you irritable or tired
- Coffee intolerance - makes you feel terrible
- Liver disease
Above are just a few of many symptomatic considerations for modification.
We can look at elimination efficiency, understanding how well we are passing stools for which you can look at a microbiome test or work with a gut health specialist to understand this. But the best way to reveal which detox phase needs most help is blood chemistry analysis
What Blood markers to look at for detoxification?
Below I will list a few considerations of standard blood markers used in determining detox process functionality, bear with the test acronyms as it's not so important you understand what they are, but more that they exist.
Unfortunately, a full explanation of each biomarker may be a little outside of the scope of this article.
- Liver enzymes can tell us a lot, when alanine transaminase (ALT) is elevated above Aspartate transaminase (AST) & Gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT) issues may be occurring inside the liver
- When the liver enzyme GGT is elevated above AST & ALT issues may be happening outside of the liver but in the biliary tree (gallbladder & bile issue)
- Elevations of ALT may lead to hydration issues due to the depletion of glutamate
- Low GGT may indicate a need for more glutathione
- Elevated alkaline phosphatase (ALP), also a liver enzyme, may indicate either biliary insufficiency or a need to support the drug conjugation in phase 2
- Decreased vitamin B12, B9, total red blood cell count, haemoglobin & hematocrit may indicate methylation issues
- Increased MCV, MCH, MCHC, RDW also indicate methylation issues
No one strategy will improve the detox capacity of the body; you need to specifically support the part of the detox system that is under strain to make any real headway.
How do I help my body eliminate toxins overall?
In conclusion, you can improve detoxification through diet; by providing the key nutrients required in the three phases and ensuring you’re hydrated (water AND electrolytes). You can look to introduce other lifestyle factors that can help with elimination such as saunas and exercise (release toxins through sweat).
If you are struggling and need further help you can test blood chemistry, heavy metal build up, overall environmental toxin load and your microbiome.
If needed you get a 15 minute consultation with an expert to help understand yours or your client results.
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