The word detoxification gets thrown around quite a bit in alternative healthcare circles. There is often an extraordinary emphasis on processes involving detoxification. This often includes: colon cleansing, liver cleansing, kidney cleansing, lymphatic drainage, sauna therapy, colon hydrotherapy, herbal therapies and coffee enemas. While there are often numerous benefits that can be obtained through such modalities, in truth, detoxification involves much more than addressing these various techniques and processes. Detoxification is actually the result of a synergistic harmony involving:
- Properly operating cellular functions
- Organ and systems equilibrium
- Cell hydration: Fluid and electrolyte balance
- Sufficient nutrients and raw materials obtained through diet
Cellular Detoxification: A Fundamental Process
Detoxification is actually a fundamental process of all cells. It is essentially a built-in defense mechanism required to handle the end products of cellular respiration and various metabolic reactions, as well as the potentially harmful effects of exogenous toxins, which may compromise cellular functions.
In short, any type of nutritional strategy that addresses detoxification should recognize that detoxification processes are not mechanical means of affecting organs and systems, but rather, are the result of proper nutritional balancing through enhancing cellular metabolic efficiency.
Detoxification & Cellular Antioxidants
As much as there has been written about the importance of antioxidants, it is important to address that the cells of the body have built-in cellular antioxidants, which are the big defenders of the castles we call our cells. These antioxidants are continuously preventing the formation of an excess of oxidative by-products, which can form harmful free radicals. The 6 major intracellular antioxidants that are critical for detoxification include:
- Superoxide Dismutase
- Coenzyme Q10
- Lipoic Acid
Glutathione is often referred to as “the mother of all antioxidants”, because it is so ubiquitously found in different cells. Glutathione is also one of the only molecules that can remove mercury. Glutathione is actually a tripeptide, consisting of 3 amino acids: cysteine, glycine and glutamine.
Superoxide dismutases (SOD’s) are enzyme/antioxidants, which degrade or “dismutize” harmful superoxides into oxygen and hydrogen peroxide. The two primary SOD’s are created from trace minerals: zinc, copper, manganese and iron.
Catalase is an antioxidant enzyme that degrades hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen. Catalase is composed of 4 porphyrin, iron-based groups.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a powerful antioxidant in operation within the mitochondria of cells. It is a very important “redox” molecule, which means that it undergoes full cycles of oxidation and reduction. It can both receive and donate electrons. Mitochondria are the energy-producing factories within cells. Protecting the mitochondria from oxidative damage and potential free radical damage and cellular toxicity, is one of the most important functions of CoQ10. It is critical to understand the significance of CoQ10 as a mitochondrial antioxidant, because mitochondrial damage is one of the primary catalysts for disease processes and cellular toxicity and aging.
The organs with the highest energy requirements, liver, heart and kidneys have the highest concentrations of CoQ10. CoQ10 is depleted through cholesterol-lowering drugs and beta blockers.
Lipoic acid is a sulfur compound with potent antioxidant-scavenging capabilities. Lipoic acid is studied in its benefit for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, arterial inflammation and metal toxicity.
Metallothionein is an often forgotten antioxidant, yet it is one that may play a critical role in detoxification reactions. With its cysteine-bearing backbone, metallothionein is capable of binding to an array of toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium and copper. There are 4 types of metallothionein, found and expressed in various tissues.
Recent evidence suggests that metallothionein may play a key role in protecting the brain from Alzheimer’s, as well as protecting the gut barrier from toxic onslaught.
How Environmental Toxins Harm Your Body & Alter Cell Functions
The human body is mostly made of water. It is the balance of fluids and electrolytes that create the electrical charge needed for our cells to work. Without proper balance of water and electrolytes, the countless functions of the cells are compromised. One of the primary electrolyte gradients is between sodium and potassium. The relationship between these two minerals is critical for cellular energy production and cell functions.
Studies have demonstrated that toxic metals such as mercury can interfere with the delicate electrolyte balance between sodium and potassium. Toxic metals such as mercury must be detoxified and removed by cellular antioxidants, otherwise there can be devastating consequences upon the functions of the body.
Additionally, toxic metals such as cadmium, mercury, lead, arsenic and aluminum are well established to possess toxic effects on the brain, endocrine and nervous systems, liver and kidneys, and are strongly implicated in cardiovascular disease. Toxic metals are well established to increase free radicals and lipid peroxidation in all organs of the body. Toxic metals such as mercury have been shown to alter blood clotting and platelet formation, damage mitochondrial function in cells, and even reduce intracellular antioxidants such as SOD, catalase and glutathione.
Over the past several decades, there have been more than 80,000 chemicals introduced into the environment. The majority of these chemicals have been never been studied for their toxic effects.
Repeated studies show the harmful effects of environmental chemicals (such as styrene, benzene, toluene, xylene) upon cellular electrolyte balance.
Like toxic metals, chemicals in the environment are a growing threat to the cellular functions of the body. It is significant to address that more recent studies have found that certain environmental chemicals are not only potentially harmful to the cellular fluid/electrolyte balance, but are also genetically toxic, and are being extensively studied for their role in cancer, leukemia, type 2 diabetes, liver & kidney dysfunction,retardation, birth defects and reproductive harm.
Emerging scientific studies have identified that certain chemicals are able to alter the expression of genetics several generations after exposure. This is now referred to as transgenerational inheritance. Many researchers speculate that the increased rate of neurological diseases may be partially a result of transgenerational inheritance due to chemical toxicity generations earlier. What is less understood is the combined effect of multiple chemicals through continuous, daily exposure. For example, it is speculated that women’s cosmetic products contribute to a very high body burden of chemicals.
The most recent forms of toxicity on the body are electromagnetic, non-ionizing radiation from cell phones and wireless devices, as well as the threat of radiation emissions from nuclear events such as Fukushima. The potential burden of radioactive toxicities represents an even greater burden than the existing threat of chemicals and toxic metals, because radioactive poison exceeds the toxicity threshold of chemicals and metals.
The level of environmental toxicity in today’s world has spiraled into a seemingly uncontrollable degree. Within the past 50 years, the level of toxicity in one’s day to day environment is absolutely astounding. Even within the past 10 years, the type of new toxins humans are exposed to is remarkable. The burden that chemicals, radiation and toxic metals place upon the cells ability to function is immense and unprecedented.
Properly functioning and harmoniously operating cellular detoxification mechanisms are critical for the degradation, and detoxification of these harmful compounds.
Organ Detoxification & Systems Function
The major organs of detoxification include: the liver, kidneys, skin, intestines and lungs.
While known primarily for its detoxification capacities, your liver actually serves hundreds of powerful functions. Being a primary organ of detoxification, the liver filters all of your blood continuously. Your liver’s detoxification pathways are known as Phase I and Phase II, respectively. These 2 phases of detoxification involve several processes. The liver needs an assortment of nutrients to perform its functions. The liver pours toxins into 2 forms: hydrophilic (water-based) and lipophilic (lipid or fat-based). Through the conjugation of bile, toxins get dumped into the small intestine via the gall bladder, or are shuffled to the kidneys to be excreted through urine.
The liver must produce and use sufficient antioxidants such as glutathione to protect itself from the harmful effect of toxins, which it is filtering from the blood. If glutathione is not produced sufficiently, or is depleted due to chemical and metal toxins, severe liver damage will ensue.
The kidneys are also a filter of the blood, but they also regulate the body’s pH and electrolyte balance. The kidneys are high performance organs. Research shows that the pars recta portion of the kidneys are the most vulnerable to the effects of heavy metal poisoning. Thus, the kidneys must have fully operational antioxidant systems such as glutathione, SOD and CoQ10. Selenium supplementation has shown beneficial for improving kidney filtration. This is likely due to the essential role of selenium in assisting glutathione’s anti-oxidant actions.
The skin is actually the largest organ of the body. Regarding its role in detoxification,the act of sweating has shown in repeated studies to function as a carrier of metal and chemical toxins out of the body.
The intestines are essential for the removal of toxins from the body. The gut flora contained within the intestines has shown to be protective against the harmful effects of heavy metals.
It is also well established that various intestinal microorganisms and yeast have an ability to harbor toxic metals. For example, mercury is known to cause a proliferation of candida albicans.
If intestinal function is compromised due to constipation, pathology, pathogenic overgrowth, gut flora imbalance, conjugated toxins will not be excreted, and due to the re-circulation of bile through the intestinal wall, many toxins will be re-absorbed into systemic circulation.
The function of the lungs is the most basic example of nutrition and detoxification. Nutrition in the form of oxygen is inhaled, and detoxification occurs through the release of carbon dioxide on the exhalation. It is true that most environmental chemical toxins (especially aromatic hydrocarbons) enter the blood via the lungs. It is likely true that as soon as you smell a chemical, it has already entered your bloodstream.
In short, proper functioning organs of detoxification are an essential component for the degradation, detoxification and removal of harmful toxins from the body. In these regards, improving hydration, digestion and elimination, and circulation are fundamental to health and the normal and essential mechanisms of detoxification in today’s modern, toxic world.
Myths Regarding Detoxification
Many vegetarians and vegans incorrectly believe that restriction of animal protein is somehow detoxifying. Animal protein is rich in sulfur-containing amino acids such as cysteine and methionine, which are essential for the formation of glutathione, one of the most ubiquitous intracellular antioxidants needed for detoxification reactions. Plant protein sources contain relatively low concentrations of these important amino acids. Furthermore, obtaining amino acids (and minerals) from plants may be very difficult for the vegan, due to the presence of plant fiber, cellulose and certain enzyme inhibitors commonly found in plant foods.
Additionally, animal protein contains Vitamin B-12, not found in plant foods. B-12 is critical for liver detoxification, as well as cellular methylation reactions, which directly affect detoxification reactions in cells.
Additionally, plant-based diets tend to be low in zinc. Zinc and the sulfur-amino acid cysteine (also low in plant foods) are critical for detoxification reactions in the liver, as well as for the formation of a protein/antioxidant known as metallothionein, which can powerfully scavenge toxic metals such as mercury.
Furthermore, plant sources of iron (known as non-heme) are poorly absorbed in comparison to animal sources of iron (known as heme). Iron is pivotal for the formation of catalase and iron-based SOD, two critical intracellular antioxidants that participate in detox reactions.
Another common myth is the “alkaline diet” idea somehow being involved in detoxification. There is no evidence that exists showing how a food with an acid or alkaline pH has any influence upon systemic pH activity in the body. Proponents of the alkaline diet myth erroneously believe that urine and saliva pH can be used to determine the metabolic pH reactions from a food. Urine and saliva are not the sights of metabolic activity in the body, but rather contain residue from metabolic reactions. Furthermore, even if any food does have an ability to alter systemic pH, the influence of the lungs and the kidneys are superior in their ability to affect systemic pH activity, because the kidneys and lungs directly regulate the levels of Co2, bicarbonate and electrolytes.
Putting It All Together: Nutrition & Detoxification In Practice
Your body fights for your safety and existence on a continual basis. It has an amazing, innate ability to protect you from harmful substances and toxins. However, in order for your body to perform its essential roles in protecting you, it must be given the correct raw materials.
The fundamentals of health are what keep everything in order. We have the conscious ability to affect how our bodies can function, for better or worse. The fundamentals of health include:
- Proper sleep and rest
- Fresh air
- High quality foods, free from chemicals and toxins
- Good digestion and elimination
- Regular exercise and physical activity
When the fundamentals are in place, you are servicing your body, just as you do by taking care of your car. Unfortunately, many people give greater care for their car than for their own bodies.
In your nutrition practice, remember that what your body needs may be very different than someone else. Realize that there are many factors influencing your body’s nutritional requirements. In terms of toxicity, remember that the level of exposure to certain toxins may by itself compromise your body’s ability to remove these toxins. So of fundamental importance is reducing your exposure to toxins. Total elimination is not possible, because most environmental toxins are completely unavoidable due to their ubiquitous presence in the environment.
Avoid primary sources of toxicity:
- Mercury-containing dental amalgams & other toxic dental procedures
- Cosmetics, household products & air re-fresheners that are laden with toxic chemicals such as parabens, pthalates and hydrocarbons
- Technologies and professions that are potentially toxic
Improve the normal mechanisms of detoxification and cellular functions by consuming high quality, nutrient-dense foods. Use nutritional supplements that are designed to aid in your cells’ ability to remove toxins.
Basic supplements consisting of certain nutrients and antioxidants may be quite useful at assisting cellular detoxification: NAC (precursor to glutathione), Vitamins C, E, Alpha Lipoic Acid, CoQ10, Zinc, Lecithin (source of phospholipids), sodium alginate, selenium, molybdenum, chlorella, iodine, B-12.
Rather than randomly choosing supplements out of a hat, individualized strategy is the best approach. This goes beyond the purpose of this article.
Normalize and improve the functionality of the organs of detoxification:
Intestines: 2-3 bowel movements daily is ideal.
Foods and nutrients that aid bile flow and support the liver: artichoke leaf, beets and beet greens, protein, cruciferous vegetables, B-12, choline, milk thistle, dandelion root, to name a few.
Kidneys: Drink sufficient chemical-free, fluoride-free and chlorine-free water to remain hydrated and to flush the kidneys. Caffeine is a diuretic and may dehydrate the body, as well as increase the demand of hydration.
Improve circulation and systemic detoxification through exercising and sweating.