Detoxification: Separating Fact from Fiction

I have said for a long time now that detoxification, as currently used in the health industry, is nothing more than a buzzword.  Anyone and everyone trying to make a dollar is peddling some “detox” product or program of some kind.  I probably receive the second most e-mails each week with questions surrounding detoxification issues and programs.  The e-mails usually say something like, “Why don’t you have a detoxification program?” or “You should offer some kind of detox boot camp for new clients.”  The word “detox” seems to be synonymous with colon cleanses, liver and gall bladder cleanses, kidney cleanses, and even a seemingly weird obsession with pushing coffee up one’s rectum.  Personally, I am not a fan of any of it…here is why:

First, some background is necessaryTaber’s Medical Dictionary defines detoxification as, “ the reduction and chemical alteration of the toxic properties of a poisonous substance, which when taken into the body by ingestion, inhalation, injection, or absorption, cause damage to structure and interferes or disturbs normal physiological function.”  The fact is that our bodies are in the constant presence of potentially harmful substances and agents.  I remember seeing an episode of the show The Doctors some years back where one of the physicians on the show made a moronic statement something to the effect of (paraphrasing of course) – Everyone is talking about all these toxins…I don’t see them anywhere…show me the toxins…show me where they are.  Such statements only confirm that you do not have to have a clue what you are talking about to be on a televised program, and in fact, the more nonsensical you can be – the greater the likelihood they will plaster your statements all over the ridiculous mind-controlling device we call a television. 

To that physician, I offer this – environmental toxins are frickin’ everywhere!  Let’s consider a few sources of toxic exposure: 

In Our Food: We have added over 3,000 (some estimate 10,000) man-made chemicals to our food supply in the last 100 years.  Phthalate esters from the plastics that cover meats, fruits, and vegetables are a huge issue.  Chronic exposure to something called di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) can lead to decreased kidney function and certain forms of liver cancer. 

Dioxins, which are created in part in the manufacture of plastics, pesticides and other chemicals, contribute largely to the overall toxic load.  Dioxins also are released from industrial smokestacks, taken up by clouds, rain out into soil, and are taken up by plants, which we ingest.  Styrene, antibiotics, hormones, preservatives, stabilizers, fillers, colorings, dyes, and additives also contribute to the toxic load of our food today.     

Pharmaceutical agents: All prescription and over-the-counter medications have toxic effects on the body.  Acetaminophen, as an example, exerts its toxic effects by lowering hepatic (liver) glutathione and sulfate reserves effecting Phase I and II detoxification capacity.    

Toxic Metals: Cadmium, aluminum, mercury, antimony, lead, arsenic and other metals are littered throughout our environment and food supply.  These metals can significantly disrupt normal physiological function of the nervous and endocrine systems. 

The Air We Breathe: Industrial chemicals and transportation exhausts are a couple of outdoor pollutants that we are exposed to; while organic hydrocarbons (formaldehyde and toluene) a part of a group of hundreds of indoor air pollutants.

In Our Home: Consider for a moment that the average carpet outgases over a dozen chemicals, including benzene, toluene, xylene, formaldehyde, butadiene, styrene, methacrylates, and many more.  Simple wool blankets can emit trichloroethylene (TCE) and moth-repelling pesticides.  Air fresheners, candles, and nearly all common household cleaning products add to the total toxic load on the body.

In Our Water: Fluoride, chlorine, and chloramines are commonly found in drinking water.  Often times many bottled waters are not much better.  Hell, about 20 years ago USA Today reported that the average water was known to contain over 500 chemicals!

Internal Toxins (toxins in the body, particularly the gut): There are substances, namely LPS (lipo-polysaccharide, or endotoxin) produced by pathogenic bacteria through the putrification of undigested foods.  LPS can easily overload the detoxification capacity of the liver by down-regulating the cytochrome P450 biotransformation pathways.   

There have been studies done by the EPA that demonstrate that 2.2 BILLION pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the U.S. environment alone in 1994.  That number was estimated a tad higher at 4.7 BILLION pounds by 2002.  I cannot even imagine what the number would be today!

So, THERE are the toxins that mis-informed physician was looking for (and that is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg)!

 It is the role of the organs of the detoxification system to perform the function of detoxification defined above.  The detoxification system consists of the liver, intestinal mucosa, kidneys, colon, lymphatic system, and the skin. 

The liver is the chief organ of detoxification in the body filtering somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 fluid ounces of blood every minute.  The liver actually performs over 500 functions in the body and goes far beyond detoxification.  It does function sort of like a washing machine removing all of the dirt and grime (toxins) that we are exposed to and getting rid of them in the “wastewater” of the detoxification pathways.

There are two detoxification pathways in the liver which allow us to rid ourselves of toxins.  They are referred to as Phase I and Phase II detoxification respectively.  In a nutshell, Phase I detoxification involves a group of 50-100 enzymes referred to as cytochrome P448 and P450 pathways.  These enzymes use oxygen to form a reactive site on the toxin and make it a little less toxic in a sense.  Phase II detoxification involves something called conjugation (glutathione conjugation) as well as methylation, sulfation, acetylation, sulfoxidation, and glucuronidation.  These particular enzyme systems require specific nutrients to function optimally.  When the specific nutrition is not on board, the detoxification capacity of the liver slows down and toxins are allowed to accumulate. 

Some of the potential symptoms of toxicity include, but are not limited to:

  • Weight issues
    • Inability gaining or losing weight
    • Fatigue and Lethargy
    • Joint Pain
    • Headaches
    • Depression
    • Muscle Pain
    • GI Issues
    • Poor Cognitive ability
    • Anxiety
    • Auto-Immune issues
    • Arthritis
    • Sleep Issues
    • Hormonal Imbalance and Disruption

So, all of this begs the $64 question – What the hell can we do to improve our detoxification capacity?  Should we be doing colon cleanses and shooting coffee up our rear ends?  Should we just attempt to dilute the toxins and drink huge amounts of water?  Should we attempt to seal ourselves off in a cool little bubble and bounce around our ever-so-toxic world like Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in the 2001 movie Bubble Boy?  These are hardly real solutions to the total toxic load we all carry with us.

A point of contingency with cleanses is this:  If you have a system and a physiology that is overloaded, what sense does it make to further burden the system by mobilizing a host of toxins with a cleanse of some kind?  I have been e-mailed by many overweight individuals telling me that they are having major issues losing weight and wondering if a liver or colon cleanse might be the answer.  This is a completely asinine concept and makes no sense whatsoever.   If you are having difficulty losing weight, or you are chronically fatigued, or you are chronically constipated, or you are having sleep issues – these are all signs of a damaged metabolism and a physiology that is likely more stressed than not.  Your physiology/metabolism must be healed in order for those things to be eliminated and in 99.9% of cases, a cleanse will not give you that end result.

Let’s say you have not cleaned a room in your home in 30 years.  One day, you wake up and say to yourself, “Self, that room really needs to be cleansed of dust and other stuff.  Let’s get in there and cleanse it.”  To do this, you go into the room, close all the windows and shut the door behind you.  You then start dusting and cleaning in a frenzy.  After about 17 seconds you are coughing and sneezing and realize that the “dust and other stuff” has no way to leave the room!  You leave the room and all of the “dust and other stuff” settles right back where it was before you did your “cleanse.”  That is what a kidney “cleanse” will do, and the same thing can be said for a colon “cleanse,” or any other “cleanse” for that matter in the presence of a physiology/metabolism that is overloaded.  In order for these “cleanses” to have any real benefit, one has to improve his/her overall physiology and decrease the load on the detoxification system as a whole.  

Given that many of these sources of toxins are not going away, here are some things to consider to help with optimal (and real) detoxification:

First, take very seriously the quality of your food.  Yes, I am aware that you have to work with what you have near you.  Finding certified organic or biodynamic foods are not an easy task for some folks.  Of course, there are a number of resources online for having excellent quality food delivered to your door (and yes, I am aware that finances come into play).  You simply have to do the best you can with what you have.  I have a resource list that I use for ordering some food in my house over the years.  When in doubt, do what you can to buy from your local farmers at Farmer’s Markets, etc.  Even if these are not certified organic foods, it is likely to be far better than what you will find in the average grocery store.  

Once you have addressed the issue of food quality, consider eliminating foods that are difficult for the body to digest.  Many foods that are considered “healthy” are very difficult for the human body to digest, particularly in the presence of damaged metabolism.  Foods high in cellulose and pectin are particularly problematic in individuals who are hypo-metabolic.   Often grains, nuts, seeds, beans, cruciferous vegetables, and crisp fruits (unless cooked) are best avoided.  When was the last time you saw meat, berries, or potato in your stool?  Probably never, unless you have severe GI issues.  That is because these foods are easier to digest.  (Note: I am aware that some people have difficulty digesting animal flesh when in a hypo-metabolic state so please do not blast back with some digestive anti-meat campaign).   I typically encourage red meats, wild meats, tropical fruits, root vegetables, the occasional rice, dairy (if you can handle it), and high quality self-made broths (bone and meat).  Ultimately, for me, that is typically the best place to start your efforts. 

A Brief Word on the Gut Mucosa

The intestinal mucosa is essential for optimal nutrient absorption and is a protective barrier against pathogens and undigested food particles.  If the microvilli of the intestinal mucosa are damaged due to inflammation, the tight gap junctions of the gut are “opened” more than they should be.  This leads to what medicine might refer to as increased intestinal permeability, also known as, Leaky Gut Syndrome.  In the presence of increased intestinal permeability, undigested food particles can make their way into circulation and initiate an immune response.  This can create issues for the detoxification system because immune complexes, which in this case are formed by the antigen (offending food) and the immune system “soldier” that is sent to “deal” with the antigen, must be brought to the liver, broken down, and then excreted.   As well, anything contributing to malabsorption issues, will also inhibit the CYP3A4 enzyme from performing its detoxification duties.  Bottom line, if the gut is leaking and/or there is malabsorption, this will eventually overload the immune and detoxification systems.  Not good for health.     

Consider that anything that irritates the gut (such as indigestible foods) will increase endotoxin (LPS) and will down-regulate detoxification capacity of the liver.  In particular, endotoxin interferes with estrogen detoxification and allows estrogen to accumulate in the body.  This is a major issue.  According to Ray Peat, PhD, “Estrogen activates the adrenal stress reaction by way of the hypothalamus and pituitary, by direct actions on the adrenal glands, and by a variety of indirect effects, such as the increase of free fatty acids. It activates the excitotoxic glutamic acid pathway, and interferes with protective adenosine inhibition of nerves. It has both direct and indirect ways of promoting the formation of nitric oxide and carbon monoxide. These, and other estrogen-promoted factors, quickly and seriously interfere with mitochondrial respiration. Many of these effects contribute to increased intracellular calcium and free radical production, contributing to both the excitatory excess and the energy deficit.”

Instead of running to some cleanse in an attempt to “fix” the problem, simply eliminate the foods that are creating the issue in the first place.  Just because a food is labeled as healthy does not make it so for everyone.  One has to consider the inflammatory response created by the foods that are eaten.  Removing such foods takes the load off of the gut, takes load off of the liver, and gives your physiology a chance to recover.

Consider the quantity and quality of the water you drink. There are all sorts of recommendations out there for how much water one should drink.  Dr. Batmanghelidj in his book Your Body’s Many Cries for Water: You are not Sick, You are Thirsty, recommends half of an ounce per pound of bodyweight.  I don’t necessarily disagree with him but for some people that can be too much water.  In more general terms, I typically recommend that an individual seek to consume at least 1.5-2 liters of water per day and usually not more than 3 liters.  Optimal hydration depends on way more than just the amount of water you drink – electrolyte excesses and insufficiencies come into play as does urine output, etc. 

When it comes to water quality, it is important to use a filtration system that filters fluoride, chlorine, and chloramines.  For me, this is essential.  My “go-to” company for filtration systems is Friends of Water.  You can find the best filters for really good prices at their website www.freindsofwater.com.  It does not do much good to drink the right amount of water if the very water that you are drinking is toxic.  Also, I would avoid things and gimmicks that claim health benefits by making water more “alkaline.”  An entire article and perhaps a book could be written on this topic alone.

Do what you can to reduce toxic exposure in the home and office.  Focus on your home – cleaning products, cosmetics, etc.  Find the least toxic options and make a move to replace what you are currently using with those options.   The Environmental Working Group has a great database of resources for things like this.  Visit their website at www.ewg.org.  Mountain Rose Herbs and Young Living are also excellent sources for non-toxic skin care, household cleaners, etc.  www.mountainroseherbs.com and www.youngliving.com are their respective websites.

Consider glycine:  Glycine is a great amino acid for aiding in the detoxification of petrochemicals.  One gram of glycine three times per day is an excellent way to help the body with its detoxification responsibilities.  I personally get this from either bone broth or the use of Great Lakes Gelatin – one tablespoon of gelatin has around 1.6 grams of glycine in it.  Be warned however, ingesting too much glycine too quickly can be irritating to the gut and may lead to explosive diarrhea.  Just a heads up… 

Air Quality: This is an area most people ignore.  There is not much you can do about the outside air quality in the region that you live.  Personally, I live in one of the most toxic regions of the country, hence the name “Cancer Alley.”  You can do things about the air quality of your home.  There are numerous purifiers that can be placed throughout the home to “detoxify” the air.  If interested in air filters, I would invite you to check out Austin HealthMate series of filters at http://austinair.com/products/healthmate-series/

As well, certain plants are also known to detoxify certain chemicals in the air.  There are around 18-20 common household plants which can help clean the air you are breathing. I would be lying if I said I have looked into that extensively, but I know of people that have done so in an effort to improve air quality. 

Supplements n’ Stuff:  There are certain nutrients that can be used to “up-regulate” Phase I and Phase II detoxification.  There are combination supplements that can up-regulate both Phase I and II pathways without mobilizing more toxins than the liver can process.  I am personally not a fan of using supplements unless the individual in question has at least 6-9 months worth of really solid nutritional work in place.  “Nutritional work” in this context would be improving water quality and quantity (if necessary), food quality, eating digestible foods, learning what macronutrient combination and meal frequency are best for their body, etc.  Then, and only then, would I give the green light for a given supplement and it would have to be the right supplement at the right time for the individual in question.    

At the end of the day, you will likely have to pick your battles and use what methods of decreasing toxic load work for you.  High quality water and food are likely to give you the most “bang for your buck.”  Remember that every BODY is different and this is very evident when it comes to detoxification abilities.  What is important is that you do the very best that you can using the resources that you have available to you to ensure that you have adequate nutrition on board for your liver and other detoxification organs’ ability to do their job.  Do what you can, take things slow, and enjoy the process of creating health!

Recommended Reading & Study:

  1. Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn
  2. Achieving Victory over a Toxic World by Mark Schauss
  3. Detoxify or Die by Sherri A. Rogers, M.D.
  4.  Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine, 2nd edition, edited by Lord and Bralley
  5. Under the Veil of Deception:  Everything Uncle Sam Isn’t Telling You about how Organic Farming and Organic Foods Relate to Our Future by Paul Chek, HHP
  6. The Future of Life by Edward O. Wison
  7. The Nontoxic Home & Office by D.L. Dadd
  8. An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard
  9. Textbook of Medical Physiology, 7th edition by Arthur C. Guyton
  10. The Metabolic Blueprint Program by EastWest Healing & Performance, http://www.eastwesthealing.com

 

Food Resource List (by no means is this meant to be a definitive or exhaustive list)

http://www.baldwingrassfedbeef.com/shop/pc/home.asp

www.organicconsumers.org/purelink.html

www.organicconsumers.org/btc/BuyingGuide.html

www.vitalchoice.com

www.grasslandbeef.com (personal favorite for all things meat)

www.drrons.com/index.html

www.radiantlifecatalog.com

www.wallacefarms.com

www.brokenarrowranch.com (excellent game meats)

www.grassorganic.com

www.organicpastures.com

www.freshdirect.com

www.doortodoororganics.com

www.organickitchen.com

www.goldminenaturalfood.com

www.shopnatural.com

www.tropicaltraditions.com

www.sunorganicfarm.com

 

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