After New Year’s Eve, when resolutions are set, the word “detox” seems to come into conversation a lot more. A lot of health programs start with a detox and it’s made out to sound like a good spring cleaning, but what is detoxification?
Detoxification is essentially removing the toxins from your body, which happens continuously, with whatever food you’re eating or any diet plan you’re following. It’s a natural process, essential for keeping you alive and kicking.
When we digest food or come into contact with toxic things like paint fumes, cigarette smoke, caffeine, alcohol, or pollution, it all gets passed to the liver cells (also called hepatocytes) through the blood via the portal vein. It is through these cells that about 99% of filtration takes place (if you have a healthy liver!), after which toxins are excreted.
Following this, there are a couple more phases of detoxification that take place. This process is also known as biotransformation, as the toxins are transformed biologically into substances that can be excreted. This is done through making them water soluble, i.e. able to dissolve in water.
During phase one, there are two main processes that take place; one is that the toxins can be made water soluble and immediately excreted by the kidneys, and the other is that they can be made even more toxic, producing free radicals. While the second option sounds extremely counter-productive, this is exactly what happens to most of our toxins. This is where phase two comes into play and is essential.
Phase two is called conjugation, in which the substances from phase one are combined with one or two of six different enzymes, each with its own pathway. The pathways and the nutrients needed for each are as follows:
- Glutathione conjugation: B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and copper
- Amino acid conjugation: magnesium and cysteine
- Sulfation: magnesium, zinc, and copper
- Glucaronidation: magnesium and L-glutamine
- Methylation: magnesium and B12
- Acetylation: acetyl CoA and vitamin C
Glutathione conjugation is involved in 60% of all phase two reactions and is one of the main antioxidants in the body. It is made up of three amino acids (cysteine, glutamine, and glycine), helps with the nervous and immune systems, and has a major role in inflammation. The main sources of glutathione are cumin, milk thistle, and raw foods.
Following this phase, the end products are excreted into bile, which carries them into the gut to be excreted in feces. Eating fibrous food is important as it helps move the bowel and get all these nasties out. When constipation arises, the substances stay in your gastrointestinal tract where toxins can be reabsorbed, making double the work for the liver.
When discussing the various phases of detoxification, everything sounds like it works wonderfully, but problems can arise when phase one is working faster than phase two is able to make its own enzymes. Grapefruit juice and turmeric help with this, as they decrease the enzymes available for phase one detoxification (making this phase slower), as well as helping speed up phase two.
Things that may stop phase two from working are general nutrient deficiencies and a lack of protein, as well as some medications, so detoxification is never just a simple thing!
To help this magical detoxification system we need to consume a whole host of vitamins and minerals, including:
- The B vitamins and folic acid
Rather than do this in supplement form, I always think the first stop should be from natural foods, so here is what I recommend:
- Eat sulphur rich foods regularly, including garlic and onions.
- Have some turmeric, either in the form of curry or added to juice or smoothies.
- Eat your greens! Things like kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cabbage.
- Have the occasional bath with Epsom salts for magnesium.
- Eat lots of fiber including whole grains and legumes.
- Consider getting some milk thistle extract.
- Eat some raw food each day, preferably at every meal.
- Buy organic as much as possible, as pesticides can affect the phase one enzyme.
And there you have it—a small part of the science behind detoxification!