Why You’re (Maybe) Detoxing All Wrong

When most people think "detox," images of juice fasts, lemonade pepper cleanses, bowel movements, and vague notions of "liver support" encapsulated in promising pills typically come to mind. And while some of these purported health hacks may be steps in the right direction (and others not so much), they all nevertheless typically fail to account for the very complicated nature of the body's actual "detox" process itself.

Contrary to its typical commercial materialization, the body's "detox" process is not a one-size-fits-all protocol in which you simply wipe out the toxins like some good all-purpose oxyclean. Rather, it's a very complicated process involving two complicated, key phases in the liver. Understanding these phases can explain why "detoxes" are often ineffective, and why at certain times you may actually want to... wait for it... slow down part of your liver's detox system.  Crazy, I know. But you'll understand why in just a sec. Here's how it goes down!

WHY TOXINS ARE "TOXIC"

Perhaps this goes without saying, but maybe we should start with why you want to get rid of "toxins" in the first place. Basically, our bodies are designed for ingesting clean, "real" food, which it uses for energy, growth, and repair. Toxins have a tendency to wreak havoc on these processes. They can damage our organs, interfere with energy production, create inflammation, damage DNA, interfere with digestive enzymes, mess up nutrient absorption and utilization, modify gene expression, damage cell membranes, screw with hormones, and so much more. {Sigh.}

Now back in the good ol' "Paleo" days, toxins were minimized to a very few sources (think: bacterial toxins), but today... they're sort of everywhere! From pesticides to plastics to heavy metals, these buggers are hard to avoid! Worse yet, it's been postulated that even exposure to seemingly small levels of toxins can be just as bad as high exposure. Similarly, small exposure to a multitude of different types of toxins (as is often the case today), may even be worse than high dose exposure to a single toxin, thanks to a deadly synergistic effect. Toxins can immediately affect you, build up and sneakily overwhelm your body over time, or do both. Alas!

THE LIVER'S RESPONSIBILITIES 

The liver is an amazing, often sorely under-appreciated organ. While we often just give a throwaway nod to our livers for providing forgiveness after a night of one too many vodka cranberries (or perhaps a bottle of wine), the liver does so much more than that. Like an internal Roomba, the liver constantly filters all your blood - almost 2 quarts every 60 seconds! It also secretes a yellowy-green substance called bile which is key for digestion. Bile is released into the small intestine to break down fats (and their attached toxins) into liquids so they can be properly utilized and excreted, typically by attaching to fiber and saying bye bye via your stools. (The bile is then recirculated and stored in the gallbladder.) The liver also generates enzymes to break down all the toxins, chemicals, hormones, and sludge we need to deal with on a daily basis, which brings us to the focus of today's post!

THE LIVER'S PHASES

As it goes, the liver has 2 basic phases for detoxifying stuff. And by stuff, I mean #allthethings. From substances in our food (additives, dyes, pesticides, etc.), to environmental toxins (perfumes, scents, lead-based-paint, BPA, plastics, etc.,) to even the seemingly comparatively benign stuff we willingly-ingest, like stimulants (oh hey caffeine) and alcohol (sad I know)... there's a lot of stuff out there for our dear livers to deal with!

Genetics, as well as the speed and efficiency of one's personal detox system phases, can explain why toxins can affect people so differently. In fact, there can be around 1000x the differences in the materialization of different detox enzymes, explaining why people's detox systems can work and react in various ways, and also why "detoxing" can result in different problems, from immune to energy to joint problems. We're all unique cookies!

This means you may have perfectly functioning and balanced phases, and can sniff all the candles and slather all the makeup and eat all the conventional produce like it's not even a thing. (Though I discourage you from doing so, as it will likely catch up at some point, and also can contribute to low grade inflammation.) On the other hand, one or both of your systems may be on the #strugglebus, explaining why you may be the type who gets angry rather than excited when they walked into Bath & Body Works, and who silently grimaces when receiving a well-intentioned gift from Yankee Candle Co. In other words, you're #fragrancefreeforthewin! (Sidenote: I cannot tell you how many times I have looked at something marketed as "unscented" and then turned to the ingredients and it says... fragrance. Story. Confusion.)

Phase 1 Liver Detox

Phase 1 Liver Detox is how it all starts (shocker). Many of the toxins which enter our body are fat-soluble, meaning they stick to fats. While water-soluble fats are relatively easy to excrete from the body via our urine and sweat, fat-soluble toxins are a bit more tricky. In fact, the body often stores these fat-soluble toxins in body fat, rather than excrete them. This is totally not where you want them, but it nevertheless temporary saves the body's systems from their immediate toxic effect, kinda like stuffing your unwanted things in your closet, rather than bagging them up and taking them out to the curb.

In order to actually excrete fat soluble toxins (AKA: actually take them to the curb!), the liver converts them from their fat-soluble form to a water-soluble form, so you can excrete them via your sweat, tears, urine, and stool, as discussed above. Ya know, typical "detox" stuff.  But there's a catch! This transformation unfortunately can generate reactive oxygen species and free radicals in the process, which can damage the liver and the rest of your body, and make you feel uber crappy. This is one reason you need loads of antioxidants and such to combat these oxidants and strip them of their power. More on antioxidants in a bit!

But that's not even the worst thing.

Ya see, when these toxins are converted into their water-soluble form, they sort of gain free license to travel throughout the body, since water is like the highway of your system. This means they can build up in active tissues and create inflammation and just make you feel even more terrible. And even worse, oftentimes these toxins are converted to temporarily more toxic forms in this water-soluble state. I kid you not. Let's give a welcome to Phase 2!

Phase 2 Liver Detox

Since Phase 1 of liver detox can transform toxins into a temporarily more toxic state, Phase 2 of liver detox remedies the problem by attaching compounds to the newly formed toxins, to mitigate their toxic effect. This is why Phase 2 is so important. Ya see, if your Phase 1 is chomping at the bit, you better hope your Phase 2 is able to catch up! Otherwise, you can get in a situation where your Phase 1 is going HARDCORE, and detoxifying ALLTHETHINGS, but then ALLTHETHINGS quickly overwhelm Phase 2, resulting in a circumstance where you're not only flooded with these toxins to begin with, (which is bad enough) but you're now flooded with these toxins in a more powerful toxic state. Oy!

This also explains why super stimulating your Phase 1 with many common "detox" supplements, especially if you're not supporting Phase 2, can make you feel worse rather than better, and not in a good way. I say not in a "good" way, because the detox process can result in the beneficial "herxheimer" reaction, with negative "detox" stuff  (think: headaches, tiredness, etc.) as you excrete toxins, but that should be transient and part of the process. If you're body literally can't deal with the toxins, it's a much different story.

PROPER LIVER DETOX STEPS

So how do we properly detox and excrete toxins, without overwhelming our livers and making things worse in the process? The key is to 1) minimize the toxins hitting Phase 1 in the first place 2) eat nourishing, (organic) whole foods to support all the liver's processes 3) potentially slow down Phase 1, and 4) definitely support and speed up Phase 2. Here's how!

1) Minimize Toxins

While I don't want you to get super fearful and feel the need to don a gas mask and construct a toxin bomb shelter in your backyard (though if you do, invite me over?) , it's important to realize that toxins are, nevertheless, everywhere. Here are some common toxin sources and practical ways to minimize your exposure. While you can totally tackle these all at once on an anti-toxic spree, you can also simply slowly make these changes throughout the coming days, weeks, and even months! Easy breezy! I recommend consulting the Environmental Working Group for all your toxin ingredient questions: they provide a rating system and details for the chemicals and components of basically every cleaner/perfume/makeup/etc. you can think of!

Plastics

The Problem: Plastic contain endocrine-disruption compounds like bisphenol-A (BPA) and di-(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), as well as flame retardants and a myriad of other yucky stuff. A 2007 study even found BPA lingering in the urine of 95% of the participants tested - yikes! These plasticy compounds have been linked to potential health problems, including reproductive issues, emotional problems, weight gain, and insulin resistance. 

The Solution: Replace your plastic containers and dishes with glass. (This is a great chance to really clean out your kitchen!) Glass storage containers are often uber cheap (we're talking a few dollars!) at places like TJ Maxx/Ross/Marshalls/Homegoods/etc. Throw away that tupperware container. #Justdoit. Your health is totally worth it! Also stop using plastic bottles. Instead, get a nice glass bottle and keep it topped up! (I'm personally obsessed with the Ello Syndicate BPA-Free Glass Water Bottle. The flip-top is epic.) Speaking of water...


Water

The Problem: Common water in the US is a ready source for lots of not so good stuff. Think: chlorine, PCBs, arsenic, and heavy metals like lead and mercury. (Check out this article on the matter!) And don't even get me stared on fluoride, which may be toxic to the brain in particular, and yet is added to our drinking what. Say what? Plus, it arguably provides little beneficial effect on cavities anyways. (Check out this Harvard article on the subject!) 

The Solution: As mentioned,  say goodbye to plastic water bottles and tap water! It's super easy to buy glass gallons and fill them up with purified water at Whole Foods/Ralphs etc. I'm also super in love with this affordable, easy to install shower filter. It can make a HUGE difference, especially if you struggle with skin issues. After all, our skin is our largest organ system, and super quick to absorb things, which brings us too....

Makeup

The Problem: Oh makeup, ye queen of irony! Heralded for covering up blemishes and providing glowing skin, it often can make things much worse in the process. 

The Solution: Want to get real glowing skin and minimize pores? I recommend forgoing makeup as much as possible, and choosing wisely when you do.  Look up products on the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database. Slowly replace your makeup products one by one with verified non-toxic versions. (For example: finished your blush? Time to research a new blush!) If you wanna start with one thing from the get-go, I vote replace your foundation.  (I personally loveeee  Arbonne's Perfecting Liquid Foundation.)

Lead Pipes & Paint

The Problem: If you live in a building built prior to 1978, it's quite possible there's lead in the pipes and building. Woe is me!

The Solution: Not much you can do about this, but if you're on the market for a new abode, it's something to keep in mind.

Insecticides/Pesticides

The Problem:  Insecticides and pesticides are sprayed on conventional produce to ward off pests. And while these chemicals are given the green light by the "industry," and “generally recognized as safe,” studies increasingly find an underestimated toxicity. In fact, up to sixty of these chemicals have been determined to be carcinogenic! And studies show they're likely increasingly toxic, linked to so many health issues #Icanteven, including cancer, brain and cognitive issues, reproductive toxicity, endrocine-disruption, and genes and cellular DNA damage. Unfortunately, most pesticides are tested solely for acute toxicity, when in reality, chronic long-term, lower-grade exposure may be a larger detrimental factor. Exposure to different types of pesticides from different produce further heightens toxicity, so if you’re eating various types of pesticide-covered veggies every day, we have a problem! Another potentially sneaky issue is these formulas are often tested in concentrated amounts for a single "active" ingredient, which fails to take into account the accumulative and cross reactive effects of multiple pesticides, plus the fact that many pesticides (cough) roundup (cough) contain more toxic ingredients than they may appear, because they're "propriety" and therefore not listed or tested. 

The Solution: Go organic if you can afford it, especially with produce. If you can't fit it in the budget all the time, consult the EWG's Dirty Dozen And Clean 15. And when you do buy conventional produce, peel them if possible. I cannot encourage you enough to really take this issue into your own hands!

Fat-Soluble Toxins (Animal Products)

The Problem: Since toxins accumulate in fat, conventionally raised livestock can be filled with antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxins from conventional feed. Even worse, conventionally-raised livestock are bred to be fatter, meaning more places for toxins to be stored. Alas!

The Solution: Buy organic, pastured-raised livestock as much as possible. While this used to be uber expensive, it's becoming increasingly more affordable thanks to the changing commercial ethos and consumer demand! Yey! For instance, Kroger/Ralphs features organic renditions in their "Simple Truth" line, Target in their "Simply Balanced" line, and Whole Foods in their "365" line. (Note: Not all the products in these lines are organic, so check!) If you gotta be selective for budget reasons, favor organic for fattier cuts, otherwise go leaner for conventional,  like filets and skinless chicken breasts. (You can then add healthy, non-toxic fats, like cold-pressed avocado, coconut, or olive oils!)

Toxins In Fish

The Problem: Due to increasingly polluted waters, toxins like mercury, radioactive isotopes, PCBS, and other nasties, can also accumulate in fish. Heavy metal exposure and toxins can be a huge problem, since these metals can attach to fat tissues, including the brain in particular, and wreak havoc. (I plan to do a post in the future specifically on heavy metal poisoning - stay tuned!)

The Solution: Choose wild-caught fish lower on the food chain, since toxins accumulate more and more the farther up ya go. (Salmon, anchovies, flounder, rainbow trout, and shellfish are often good choices, but step away from the ahi tuna, orange roughy, and swordfish!) Avoid most farmed fish, which can be ripe with antibiotics, and are often fed stuff rich in grains, soy, and other toxic byproducts.  Alas! That said, it’s vital that you research the specific fish, producer, and home body of water (for example: Atlantic versus Pacific cod). While we’d generally like to think “wild-caught” fish is best, those from polluted waters would not be ideal. On the flip side, though I suggest you stay away from most farm-raised fish, some producers implement sustainable, healthy practices without the use of antibiotics or problematic feed. (I regularly consume some farm-raised, responsibly sourced tilapia and barramundi, for example.) Keep in mind that many fresh fish are sprayed with unnecessary additives to keep them looking pretty in the case. (Think: polyphosphate, sodium tripolyphosphate, nitrates, and many others!) Such additives are slightly less common in frozen fish, which can be flash-frozen for preservation.  (I personally like to stock up on some good frozen fish brands available at Costco.) Consult the Environmental Defense Fund's Seafood Selector for those fish lowest in mercury, and highest in omega 3s.

2) Nutritious Whole Foods

Proper nutrition is key for your body to do all its things. It's the foundation, no way around it! While people vary (and argue galore) on things like carb and fat intakes, the basics here are to consume nourishing whole foods which support your liver's detox systems, making you ultimately feel alive and good! In addition to adequate, nourishing protein, fat, and carbohydrates (the basic building blocks), there are some key nutrients necessary for proper liver function. These include:

  • Amino Acids: These are vital for Phase 2 of liver detox, and can provide a reason for why an all juice cleanse might not be the best thing for liver detox! Ya gotta get your protein in there! Good Sources: Wild-caught fish, pastured beef, and poultry
  • B Vitamins: B Vitamins are vital for proper methylation, energy production, and liver detox. Good Sources: Wild-caught fish, pastured beef, and poultry
  • Antioxidants: Processing toxins can produce a boatload of oxidative stress. Antioxidants bind to these dangerous oxidative byproducts, rendering them powerless! Oh hey!! Good Sources: berries (blueberries, strawberries, etc.), fruits, cocoa (dark chocolate), coffee (though caffeine can be an issue, as we'll look at below), tea, spices (clove, peppermint, allspice, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, etc.)  By the way, dried spices often have higher "ORAC" value, which measures antioxidant status. 
  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C is a crucial antioxidant, and it's best to get it in whole foods form! Good Sources: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi, oranges, bell peppers, and more!
  • Folate: You need proper amounts of folate, but most people can't process (and might even be hindered by) folic acid found in most fortified foods. Good Sources: dark leafy greens, (spinach, kale, etc.), green vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts), oranges, legumes
  • Sulfur compounds:These are vital for Phase 2. Good Sources: cruciferous veggies (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, turnip, etc.)

 

3) Slow Down Phase 1

As discussed, Phase 1 is when your awesome liver takes fat-soluble toxins and transforms them into a water-soluble form. This makes them easier for the body to excrete, but they can become more toxic in the process! Because of this, we want to support the functioning of our Phase 1, but potentially slow it down as well, especially in situations of toxin overload or when Phase 2 is struggling.

Things can get real complicated real quick, since quite a few things are known to stimulate Phase 1 (and not all of them are "bad"). These include:

  • Caffeine: A person's genetics can determine if they're a slow or fast metabolizer of caffeine, and can indicate the rate of their Phase 1 system.
  • Alcohol: If you do indulge, choose red wine, as the polyphenols can bring health benefits in the process.
  • Histamine: If you struggle with histamine overload, this can tax your Phase I system. Foods particularly rich in histamine include fermented foods, strawberries, spinach, avocado, almonds, wine, and others. Check out my Food Sensitivity Guide for more!
  • Lifestyle Factors: Stress and inflammation can tax Phase 1.
  • Foods: Despite their health benefits (including liver support!), some foods do activate Phase 1, which is something to keep in mind if your Phase 1 is overloaded. These include some cruciferous veggies and artichoke. (Note: Different cruciferous veggies seem to have varying effects, and also can support Phase 2 as well. For example, kale may inhibit Phase 1, whereas cabbage doesn't seem to.)

Thankfully, many nutritious foods and herbs you can choose to ingest can slow down the Phase 1 process. These include:

  • Quercetin: Quercetin is an epic anti-inflammatory (and anit-histamine!) compound. It's prevalent in citrus fruits, cruciferous veggies, leafy greens, and many others!
  • Curcumin: Curucmin is the active command in the yellow spice turmeric. It's fantastic for proper detoxification, as it inhibits Phase 1 but stimulates Phase 2. It also stimulates bile and can inhibit cancer cells. Yey! (Note: I do not recommend adding black pepper to your curcumin, which can cause inflammation and permeability in the gut.)
  • EGCG: Even though the caffeine in tea can stimulate Phase 1, this compound also found in the beverage can inhibit Phase 1.
  • Silymarin: Also known as milk thistle, this wonder compound can inhibit Phase 1, and also support regeneration of liver cells!
  • Sulforaphane: Another win for cruciferous veggies, this compound can inhibit Phase 1.

4) Speed Up Phase 2

As discussed, in Phase 2, the liver attaches compounds to the potential intermediate toxins created in Phase 1, to neutralize and excrete them. Without a proper functioning Phase 2, detoxification will very likely leave you feeling perpetually worse, rather than ultimately better. Of course, you need the proper substrates from your food choices to create these compounds in the first place. These include: 

  • Amino Acids: Amino acids are necessary to build the compounds responsible for deactivating the toxic metabolites generated in Phase 1.  (It now makes so much sense why I would crave chicken the night after one too many shots in college!) Particularly important amino acids include glycine (found in things like fish and gelatinous meats), taurine (found in meat, fish and shellfish, eggs, and dairy), cysteine (rich in chicken, beef, seafood, onions, garlic, and cruciferous foods like broccoli and Brussels sprouts), methionine (found in many animal products), and glutamine (found in meats, seafood, organs, and spinach), which is also awesome for gut health! 
  • Glutathione: Glutathione is the primary antioxidant produced by the body. It's key for not only detox, but staying vibrant and healthy in general! While it is found in some foods, and sold as supplements, unfortunately the body can't readily absorb it via that route. (Though liposomal glutathione may be an exception.) Instead, you can support proper glutathione generation through various key nutrients, including selenium (via supplements or things like Brazil nuts and shellfish), cruciferous veggies, Alpha-lipoic-acid (found in things like red meat, spinach, broccoli and yams, and not to be confused with alpha-linolenic acid), and N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) (not found in foods directly, but generated as a byproduct and also available via supplements).
  • Sulfate: Sulfate is another compound necessary for Phase 2. It's produced by the body from sulfurous foods. Again: cruciferous vegetables!
  • Sam E: Sam E is important for proper methylation and Phase 2 activity. It's generated from methionine (found in protein-rich animal products) and also available via supplement.
  • Curcumin: As discussed, curucmin is the active command in the yellow spice turmeric. Not only does it inhibit Phase 1, but it also stimulates Phase 2. Talk about the perfect combination!

5) Toxin Removal

Of course, even if you minimize toxins and get your Phase 1 and Phase 2 systems #onpoint, it won't do much good if you can't actually let go of the toxins when all's said and done. Proper elimination is key! Here are some things you may want to focus on, to ensure you truly are letting it go.

  • Bile: You want to make sure you've got adequate bile, since it's responsible for attaching to toxins so they can be excreted. Foods which encourage bile production include artichoke and dandelion greens, while you can also supplement with ox bile. 
  • Fiber: While one can argue that fiber is not essential for proper elimination (as I have in the past, and still could), I believe fiber is particularly important for toxin elimination, especially if you're undergoing a detox protocol. I suggest erring on the side of fiber from whole foods, rather than supplements. It's estimated that Paleolithic man consumed much more fiber than we did today, but again, that was via fruits and veggies, not harsh grains and supplements. (For more on the whole fiber issue, check out my book, What When Wine: Lose Weight and Feel Great with Paleo-Style Meals, Intermittent Fasting, and Wine!)
  • Water: Ya gotta stay hydrated! Water dilutes toxins so they don't hurt your kidneys, and also is vital for excretion of  those water-soluble toxins by the kidneys.

CONCLUSION

Hopefully by now you've got an idea of just how complicated the whole #detox process is, and why you probably shouldn't approach it willy-nilly. An open-mind but not open-wallet here is key: shelling out moolah for cleanses and supplements may or may not be effective, and just might make things worse! Instead, try to ascertain your current liver statusand support proper detox through diet and lifestyle choices which minimize your overall toxic burden, while supporting liver health, in both its phases! I definitely recommend checking out a more elaborate resource on the process, such as The Toxin Solution: How Hidden Poisons in the Air, Water, Food, and Products We Use Are Destroying Our Health--And What We Can Do To Fix It, by Joseph Pizzorno. But of course, as I always say, mindset is key. So don't fear the toxins too much: know that your body is equipped to handle them - ya just gotta provide the right foundation! You got this!

SOURCES

The Continuing Importance of Bile Acids in Liver and Intestinal Disease 

Plastics and Environmental Health: The Road Ahead

Therapeutic potential of curcumin in digestive diseases 

Human exposure to bisphenol A (BPA)

Plastics and health risks

Phase II Drug Metabolizing Enzymes 

Modulation of Metabolic Detoxification Pathways Using Foods and Food-Derived Components: A Scientific Review with Clinical Application

The synergistic upregulation of phase II detoxification enzymes by glucosinolate breakdown products in cruciferous vegetables

Quercetin, Inflammation and Immunity
The Science of Detoxification and How It Relates to Your Health

The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide

Major Pesticides Are More Toxic to Human Cells Than Their Declared Active Principles

Pesticide Exposure, Safety Issues, and Risk Assessment Indicators

Foods and Supplements to Balance Phase 1 and Phase 2 Liver Detoxification

Folate

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