I will preface this post by saying that I don’t believe in the definition of “detox” that has been forced upon us by modern day media. No juice cleanses over here that is for absolute sure.
But I want to revisit the word, definition, and mechanism of the word detoxification before it was sensationalized and victimized by marketing companies.
First and foremost, your body is pretty good at detoxifying on its own through a variety of different organs, most notably liver, kidney, and even skin. When these organ systems are overloaded, they don’t entirely lose their ability but they lose some of the capacity to function at their highest level.
One of physiotherapy textbook notes, the liver is “known to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of agents that are not readily metabolized or excreted.” It’s a sensitive little guy. Things like modern drugs, agrochemicals and other modern environmental pollutants tend to make it a little emo, making it less eager to perform its job. Like liver who shops at Hot Topic and listens to Fall Out Boy (I wrote this sentence in 2017 and it little version of me makes me laugh.) Constant exposure to new industrial agents, particularly if at relatively high levels and when combined with other well-known burdens like alcohol and high fat diets, can lead to functional liver distress.
Not to say that we should fear these things, and they are certainly okay in reasonable amounts. Again, your body was literally MADE for this. But modern day life as we know it, has us exposed us to these things in higher amounts than previously. Other offenders that put increased tax on detox organs include: poor diet (high consumption of refined polyunsaturated oils, fake fats, refined sugars, high fructose corn syrup, refined carbohydrates and artificial sweeteners), excessive alcohol intake, some drugs and toxins like pollutants, insecticides, pesticides, and contaminants. They all affect the liver’s ability to detox properly. Symptoms of poor detoxification are vast and include: headache, sneezing, rashes, dizziness, incapacitating fatigue, pain, weakness, intestinal symptoms, heart palpitations, panic attacks, migraines, and depression.
Continual exposure to things called POPs – persistent organic pollutants (insecticides, herbicides, drugs, solvents, metals, pesticides, industrial chemicals like PCBs and by-products PCDDs) accumulate in fatty tissue of organisms and are higher for those at the top of the food chain (hint: we humans). These also have neurodevelopmental, thyroid, estrogen, and immune function repercussions.
So just to reiterate – at baseline, the body is pretty good at doing this. I can’t emphasize enough how this blog post is not at all meant to fear monger similar to the way certain marketing companies do. It’s instead meant to empower you and to realize that even with exposure to some of the above things, there are some really easy behaviors you can add in to your life to kick detox organs into high gear. All about adding in, rather than taking out.
Most interestingly (to me, anyways) to get the “detox” capacities of your liver working again, you actually NEED food. The truest opposite of deprivation. Your liver needs certain nutrients to act as cofactors, which ensure phase I and phase II detoxification systems work properly.
The two phases of detoxification are phase I and phase II. About to get a little fancy with terminology but bear with me. Phase I involves the addition of oxygen to form a reactive site on the toxic compound and phase II is the process of adding a water-soluble group to reactive site, making it possible to be excreted. This basically means phase I dresses the toxin up and prepares it, and phase 2 makes it water soluble so it can get out of the body (boi bye).
Phase I detox requires little nutritional support to be fully active. Phase I, however, may increase the amount of xenobiotics (foreign substances to the body) in the blood as they are freed from adipose and lean tissue. Phase II detox, however, needs nutrients and cofactors from vitamins and nutrients to turn these xenobiotics water soluble, so that they can then exit the body. Elimination of xenobiotics, in fact, is determined by the conversion of toxic fat-soluble substances to water-soluble chemicals by enzymes in the liver and other tissues that facilitate their elimination. Excessive phase I activity can generate more dangerous toxic complications, like when fasting or other sudden loss of adipose tissue where fat soluble metabolites are stored. This can also happen with a reduction in antioxidant capacity like heavy smoking, exposure to industrial pollutants, or chronically deficient diets. So if phase II nutrients and cofactors are not present after phase I has happened, increasing toxic compounds in the blood, you end up feeling awful.
- (Is it cool to do a PS in the middle of a post, rather than the end?) This is why juice cleanses are not only not effective in the long run, but can actually make you feel worse. If you are not eating vegetable fibers and other nutrients that kick phase II detox into high gear, you’re essentially just uprooting the toxins that are stored in fat cells, and then giving them no place to go.
So here are a few tips for mat talk to your body’s detox systems:
(if you get this reference, we are forever friends)
- Consume diet high in antioxidants and foods to support detoxification pathways:
- organic cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, watercress, garden cress, cabbage, kale, brussels sprouts, radish sprouts) enhance phase II pathways, which help clear xenobiotics more efficiently (Hodges & Minich, 2012).
- foods that contain B12, B6 and folate:
- folate: beef liver, peas, beans, nuts, eggs, lentils, chickpeas, asparagus, spinach, navy beans, black beans, kidney beans, broccoli, turnip greens
- B12: shellfish, beef liver, sardines, grass fed beef, tuna, lamb, salmon, eggs, fish, crab
- B6: wild caught, tuna, banana, salmon, grass-fed beef, chicken breast, cooked spinach, sweet potato, hazelnuts, turkey, garlic
- allium vegetables (onions, leeks, garlic) – enhance and support phase I and II pathways in the GI tract, liver, and kidneys (Cline, 2015). These foods contain sulfur which is crucial for detoxification systems
- citrus foods: these contain monoterpenoids which induce phase II detox glutathione and glucuronidation activities
- curcumin: induce glutathione production and glutathion-S-transferase activity
- fish oil / omega-3 fatty acid supplement (3600-4000 mg daily) – may attenuate damage induced by air pollution (Peter et al., 2015).
- vitamin D3 (4000 IU daily)
- chlorella powder: has the potential to inhibit absorption of heavy metals or pollutants across he intestinal mucosa and therefore decrease circulation of these toxicants
- magnesium (25ug daily) – glucuronidation requires magnesium and may be inhibited by smoking, fasting and possible high fructose intake
- adequate hydration with water to promote elimination of biotransformed molecules
- infrared sauna: In terms of detox, the jury is out. But there are other benefits reported in the literature, most agreeing that individuals who regularly sauna just feel better.
- shown to be beneficial for pain and stiffness in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis ( 4 )
- assists with recovery after maximal endurance performance (granted a small study that only tested men) ( 5 )
- can help with symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome ( 6 ) – EXTREMELY small study
- reduced overall mortality, reduced incidence of cardiovascular events and dementia (in men) ( 7 )
- improve exercise performance in athletes, skin moisture barrier properties, and quality of life ( 7 )
- in terms of “detoxification” specifically, I truthfully couldn’t find much in the literature. One study (albeit small, with 36 participants), measured lipophilic toxicants in individuals who did steam sauna + oral/IV supplements, dry sauna with placebo oral/IV interventions, and no sauna / no oral/IV supplements. Overall, there were no significant changes in serum concentrations of organochlorides reported between any of the groups. Though there were somatic well being scores improved in both of the groups who did sauna compared to the no sauna groups. While sweat- induced detoxification certainly occurs, studies using sauna for detoxification purposes report more favorable findings with subjective rather than objective measures, and more research is needed to support claims. ( 7 )
- most importantly – not associated with serious adverse events. So you may experience even more benefits than the above with little to know harm (though there is some research on decreased sperm count for men) ( 7 )
I also understand and recognize that incorporating sauna into everyday life just is not at all accessible to most. So here are a few more things you can do!
Accessible / affordable ways to help the body’s detox systems
- Dry brushing for the lymphatic system – increases circulation and helps enhance the lymphatic flow / drainage. Brush upwards in the direction of your heart. Dry brushing stimulates the lymphatic system, which “catches waste from cells, environmental toxins, and pathogenic organisms. Regular dry brushing can help you remove lymphatic waste more efficiently.
- Jump rope: also helps with lymphatic drainage
- Hydrotherapy: alternate hot and cold water in the shower. take a hot shower for 5 min then go really cold for 30 seconds. Repeat this five times. Or end a shower with 2 minutes of very cold water. This can further help increases the circulation of blood and lymph, which increases waste elimination.
- Limit alcohol to decrease liver burden.
- Drink more water (2-3L/day) – adequate hydration with water promotes elimination of biotransformed molecules
- Reduce intake of sugars and processed foods
- Eat sulfur rich foods (eggs, broccoli, garlic) to enhance glutathione (major body antioxidant involved in detoxification systems)
- Switch to natural beauty / cleaning products to decrease endocrine disruptor load
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this is all very interesting and helpful info! i really want to try a sauna, but find it very intimidating. how long do i sit in there??
it depends! I do until I get a good sweat going, but it’s really whatever you can tolerate! For me, that’s usually 30ish minutes at 145F.