The Science of Detoxification + How to Boost Your Natural Detox Powers
Toxins are everywhere in our modern world: They’re in the air we breathe outdoors from cars and industrial processes, plus the air inside our homes from cleaning products, gasses emitted from carpet and paint, and dust and mold particles.
We also ingest toxic substances that hitch a ride in food and drinks, such as herbicide and pesticide residue, chemicals from plastic packaging, and others produced during frying or processing. Toxins can enter our system through the skin, too, often via the very self-care products we apply to it to keep it healthy.
That all sounds like scary stuff, but the good news is, the human body has developed a sophisticated mechanism for dealing with and expelling toxins and all the other junk that doesn’t belong. The process has evolved as a means of survival, and it’s essential considering just how much toxins can interfere with the functioning of our cells and systems.
Here’s why this three-phase detox process is vital to your overall well-being, how it works, and the simple ways you can optimize your natural detox powers every day.
Why is Detoxing So Important, Anyway?
The most dangerous toxins we’re exposed to — usually the environmental, artificial ones — affect you in one of two basic ways: by direct attack or by a secondary offensive on the body’s communication systems.
“These types of toxins can directly damage cell membranes, cellular components, and DNA through oxidative stress with free radicals,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, MD, Medical Director of Vital Plan. “Or, they can also disrupt cellular messaging systems, which your cells rely on to help your body function properly.”
For example, chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) from plastic residue can mimic hormones, particularly estrogen. That’s problematic because hormones are primarily used as signaling tools that set in motion various processes in the body, Dr. Rawls explains. So if your body suddenly senses an influx of “fake” hormones, it throws everything out of whack. Other toxins like pesticides, meanwhile, target and interfere with hormonal communications.
The effects of toxins can be troublesome for everyone. Exposure to environmental toxins, for example, has been linked to a variety of chronic illnesses, including obesity, cancer, and immune and reproductive problems.
If you’re relatively healthy and looking to stay that way as long as possible, keeping your toxic load down is critical to longevity and optimal health. But if you’re already suffering from a chronic illness or recovering from one, toxins can be especially problematic, Dr. Rawls says. “If your body’s communication systems are already messed up, adding in any extra burden from accumulated toxins can tip the scales and mess things up badly.”
The 3 Phases of Natural Detoxification
When you understand exactly how and what the human body does to isolate and dispose of toxins, you can’t help but appreciate its miraculous power. Here, a brief explanation of the body’s three-step detox process:
Toxins are primarily fat-soluble compounds, but in order for your body to begin eliminating them, they must first be made water-soluble. This is the job of what’s called the cytochrome P450 system, or CYP 450, which involves a specialized family of enzymes that break down or metabolize the molecules, Dr. Rawls says.
“The cytochrome P450 system is one of the most important systems in the body, and it works primarily in the liver, although all cells contain CYP 450 enzyme systems,” Dr. Rawls adds. Part of what makes the system so special is its ability to create new, highly specific enzymes for different toxins you may be exposed to.
It doesn’t always happen right away, though. For example, if you’re taking a new drug for the first time, your body hasn’t developed enzymes to deal with those particular chemicals. But over time, your body could develop ways to process and deal with it.
In this step, conjugation occurs: Once a toxin has been made water soluble, other molecules then bind to it — a.k.a., conjugation — which fully neutralizes and prepares it to be disposed of into bile, Dr. Rawls says. “Glucuronic acid, glutathione, and other amino acids latch on and prevent it from recirculating.”
After conjugation, the toxin is ready to be transported into bile. Think of this stage as taking out the trash. Once dumped into bile, which is like the garbage truck, most toxins are released into the upper part of the small intestine, incorporated into stool, and eventually expelled, Dr. Rawls says. But some take a different path through the kidneys and to the bladder, then are released with urine or out of your pores in sweat.
The Role of the Lymph System
Certain substances we might not necessarily think of as toxic can still burden our systems and our health. “We all have to deal with abnormal proteins from food that might cross the intestinal barrier and spur antibodies that need to be removed via our lymph system,” Dr. Rawls says.
We also make toxins inside our bodies — they’re the byproducts of metabolic processes and produced by our vast collection of microbes. “I call it the ‘microbe burden’ — our microbes produce toxic substances that we have to neutralize,” Dr. Rawls says.
How Can You Support Detox the Healthy Way?
Even though you’ve developed a highly sophisticated system for regularly removing toxins, some things can gum up the works, such as a sluggish or inflamed liver, stagnant or low bile flow, irregular bowel movements, and clogged lymphatic channels. And while there are things you can do to energize the process in the short term, overall detoxing should not be considered something you do for a few days and move on, but rather a constant element in your overall approach to health.
In fact, most of the “detox” products you find on the market are the equivalent of a crash diet that’s designed to deliver rapid weight loss results. To achieve the effects, the products often rely on laxatives, Dr. Rawls says. And so, instead of actually addressing meaningful and lasting aspects of the three detox phases, the laxatives flush a buildup of “bad” bacteria that can occur from eating a high-carb, processed food diet and irregularity — but the relief is only temporary.
Although flushing your bowels can make you feel better briefly if you’ve not been regularly eliminating the junk, the effects are fleeting. What’s more, there’s little evidence that detox diets or fad products are effective, according to a review in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.
So tune out the hype, and instead, use these more sound, effective, and systemic approaches that support your body’s natural detoxification every step of the way, every day.
1. Limit Your Toxin Load as Much as Possible.
“The biggest thing you can do is not overload your system with toxins in the first place,” Dr. Rawls says. It’s unrealistic to think you can avoid all toxins, but there are certainly ways to reduce your exposure greatly.
Because toxins can get into your body in only one of three ways — breathing them in, ingesting them, or absorbing them through your skin — you have a lot of control, he says. Some simple ways:
- Switch to natural cleaning products. You’ve got many options to clean “green.” Instead of the standard, chemical-laden household disinfectants and agents, for example, try simple DIY solutions that include ingredients like vinegar, castile soap, borax, and baking soda mixed with warm water.
- Choose organic when possible. Eating organic food reduces your exposure to pesticide and herbicide residue — and (surprise!) you can do it on a budget.
- Drink filtered water. Your kitchen tap could be delivering heavy metals and other pollutants along with H2O, so it might be worth getting your water tested or potentially investing in a high-quality filter.
- Escape to green spaces. The more rural, the better! Cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles contribute significantly to toxic air pollution.
- Fill your home with natural air purifiers. Not only are plants like peace lilies, Boston ferns, and others pretty to look at, they help scrub the air.
2. Use the Right Herbs and Foods to Support Your Liver and Detoxification.
“During each phase of detoxification, a lot of oxidative stress is produced, and a lot of free radicals are generated that can damage the liver,” Dr. Rawls says. But there are a number of natural remedies and foods that help protect liver cells:
Sometimes called “the great protector,” this powerful cellular antioxidant plays an important role in maintaining liver health, and there are several enzymes your liver needs to make for natural detoxification that depend on glutathione.
Milk Thistle. Sometimes referred to as silymarin (one of its main phytochemical components), milk thistle is known for its liver-protective properties and ability to help support glutathione levels. In one study examining its effects in liver cells, silymarin was shown to suppress cellular inflammation. It also helps stimulate bile flow, Dr. Rawls says.
A potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory herb that also helps boost bile flow, andrographis has been shown to have liver-protecting qualities and an ability to modulate liver enzymes, according to a review in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Disease.
In India, turmeric is used extensively and has a long-recorded use in traditional Ayurvedic, Unani, and Chinese medicine for biliary and liver disorders. In particular, compounds called turmerones found in turmeric protect the liver from damage due to environmental toxins and viruses enhancing liver function and repair. Additionally, curcumin, also found in turmeric, protects the liver through its ability to inhibit oxidative damage in the liver caused by solvents, alcohol, medications or viruses.
Used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine to detoxify the blood and boost circulation, burdock root is known to support liver health. For example, burdock root extract was found to help prevent damage to liver tissue caused by high doses of acetaminophen, reports a study in the journal Current Therapeutic Research. It’s also an anti-inflammatory and natural diuretic, and it provides prebiotic fiber for gut bacteria, which helps improve digestion.
Known as the “stone breaker” for its ability to help prevent or break up kidney stones, this herb helps promote healthy kidney and liver function, plus it counters oxidative stress and fights inflammation.
White Peony Root Extract
A gentle and anti-inflammatory herb, this extract is known to promote kidney health and support the liver, according to a review in Frontiers of Pharmacology.
Chlorella contains one of highest concentrations of chlorophyll, the pigment that gives plants their green color, in nature. Research suggests chlorophyll molecules bind to toxins in the GI tract and hold them there, preventing them from being absorbed into the tissue and allowing them to be excreted rather than stored. These toxins include organic-type ones such as herbicides, pesticides, and possibly mycotoxins from molds, as well as heavy metals and plastics such as BPA and phthalates.
All fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants, but cruciferous vegetables — broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and the like — are especially beneficial for the liver. For starters, they contain glucosinolates, including sulforaphane, which help spur the liver to produce detoxifying enzymes. For example, mice who ate Brussels sprouts for two weeks showed an increase in phase 1 and phase 2 detoxification enzymes, according to a study in the Journal of Food Science.
3. Focus on Fiber.
Dietary fiber helps trap toxins in your colon so that they don’t get reabsorbed again, and it ensures regular bowel movements move toxins out of your body, Dr. Rawls says. But fiber also has a big impact on your gut’s microbiome — it can feed the good bacteria while keeping the bad bugs in check.
That’s good news for detoxification for a few reasons: A healthy microbiome contributes to a strong gut barrier, which keeps toxic proteins out of your system. Plus, research now suggests gut bacteria may directly help metabolize pollutants and reduce your toxic load.
To amp up your fiber intake, aim to get most of your fiber from vegetables, which are also high in protective antioxidants and other phytonutrients. If you choose grains, opt for whole grains like brown rice and oatmeal rather than processed wheat products such as bread and pasta.
4. Drink Enough Water.
You needn’t guzzle gallons a day, but do make sure you stay well-hydrated. Urine and sweat are important ways your body removes toxins, and adequate hydration is necessary for moving stool. A good barometer is the color of your urine. If it looks like lemonade, you’re getting just the right amount. Anything darker means you need to drink more (or eat more water-rich produce); if it’s clear, you may be overdoing it.
5. Boost Your Bile.
Anything that helps encourage proper bile production and flow will help support phase 3 of the detoxification process. Several liver-protective herbs do that naturally, such as milk thistle, turmeric, and andrographis, but plants and other herbs known to help encourage healthy digestion are also beneficial for bile flow, Dr. Rawls says. The best are usually bitter: berberine and dandelion, as well as vegetables like arugula, kale, and other leafy greens.
6. Encourage Lymphatic Flow and Blood Circulation.
Your lymph system helps filter and remove cellular byproducts and other junk out of your body, and it’s closely related to your circulatory system. However, when lymph channels become clogged and circulation stagnates, it can be difficult for your body to dispose of the waste properly. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to ensure everything hums along smoothly.
For starters, both red root and nettle root are herbs known for their ability to help boost lymphatic flow and drainage, which works to better cleanse the body of toxins and waste. Also, physically moving your body is a must. Any physical activity will get your blood flowing and help manually encourage lymph to flow through its channels.
Ultimately, if you’re ready to embark on a cleaner lifestyle, the key detox habits to follow daily will always be eating a healthier, plant-based, anti-inflammatory diet, enjoying more exercise, reducing your stress levels, and limiting exposure to pollutants and chemicals.
But if you want to initiate a more intensive “jumpstart” to your detox, short-term herbal remedies can help get you on track, Dr. Rawls says. For the best results, remember to avoid products that contain high doses of laxatives or laxative herbs, which offer only fleeting benefits. Instead, for longer-lasting detox support, choose those with detox herbs that promote healthy liver and renal function and encourage lymphatic flow and circulation. A good one to try is cleavers extract.
And, of course, after the initial detox period, continue to support your body’s daily detox processes with those same healthy habits and everyday detox herbs.
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