Many people are concerned about environmental toxins, and I’m often asked, “What’s the best approach to detoxification?” Studies show that everyone has dozens of environmental toxins—pesticides, heavy metals, solvents, and by-products from plastics—stored in their liver and fat cells. Not only do we accumulate toxins through inhaling and ingesting them, our bodies also create toxins as a normal by-product of metabolic functioning. To add to the toxic overload, a lack or imbalance of key nutritional compounds causes cellular malnourishment and dysfunction, infectious organisms produce toxins, and stress initiates allostatic overload, resulting in more toxicity.
There are plenty of herbal and nutritional supplements that promise detoxification. Most of these, however, simply target elimination, and don’t address the deeper issue of cellular detoxification. Many people aren’t aware that the body requires specific nutrients to adequately perform the intricate processes of detoxification. For this reason, although fasting is often promoted for cleansing, it’s not the best way to help your body detoxify. Furthermore, fasting releases large amounts of toxins into the bloodstream in the process of breaking down fats—if this happens quickly, the pathways of detoxification are overburdened.
How Our Bodies Manage Toxins
Our bodies are designed to deal with toxins by either eliminating the offending substance, or by transforming the toxin into a less harmful compound. Because detoxification is so integral to health, there are several pathways of detoxification: the gastrointestinal system (including the liver, gallbladder, and colon), respiratory system, urinary system, skin, and lymphatic system. However, if we are overburdened by toxins, or too stressed to adequately process them, our bodies store toxins in adipose tissue (fat cells), where they pose the least harm. It’s only when too many toxins are encountered or when the body’s normal pathways of detoxification are overloaded that problems arise. Common symptoms of toxic overload include allergies, asthma, digestive disturbances, skin problems, and painful joints. Chemical toxins have also been implicated in cancer, heart disease, depression, and virtually every other degenerative disease.
There are three primary steps involved in detoxification:
- Phase I (transformation): This phase is composed of the cytochrome P450 family of enzymes. These enzymes add a molecule to the toxin, making it more reactive (and more dangerous). This serves as a signal to attract the enzymes involved in Phase II.
- Phase II (conjugation): Enzymes specific to this phase prepare the toxin for removal by joining it to other compounds, making it water-soluble and easier to eliminate.
- Phase III (transport): Proteins in this phase push the water-soluble toxins and cellular wastes out of the cell and into the bloodstream, where they can be excreted through the kidneys or eliminated through the gastrointestinal tract.
Healthy detoxification requires the appropriate balance between all three phases. Because the Phase I enzymes create compounds that are potentially more hazardous than the original toxin, it’s essential for the activity of Phase II enzymes to be bolstered at the same time. Phase III enzymes must also be supported so that they can adequately process the elimination of waste materials. If all three detoxification phases are not balanced, highly reactive toxins can accumulate, resulting in increased cellular damage.
Nutritional Support for Detoxification
One of the most effective ways to support detoxification is to provide your body with a wide range of nutrients from a healthy whole foods diet. I recommend the following dietary strategies:
Eat organic foods:
As much as possible, eat organic foods to lessen your exposure to harmful environmental chemicals. The fewer chemicals that you ingest, the fewer toxins your liver has to process. In addition, choose whole, minimally processed foods to avoid unnecessary added ingredients.
Drink pure water:
Drink spring water or invest in a good water filter to decrease your exposure to chemicals. Water has a natural, gentle diuretic effect, and drinking six to eight glasses of pure water daily helps your kidneys do their job of filtering out toxins.
Avoid toxic foods:
Polyunsaturated oils, hydrogenated fats, refined and processed foods, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol are the primary dietary stressors that tax the organs of detoxification and create toxic by-products in the body. Avoid all foods containing hydrogenated fats and processed oils and be aware of how sugar, caffeine, and alcohol affect you. Some people can process moderate amounts of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol with no noticeable problems, while others suffer ill effects after even a single indulgence.
Protect your cells with nature’s antioxidants:
Fresh vegetables and fruits contain a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients that protect cells from damaging toxins. Eat 7-10 servings of fresh vegetables and fruits every day, and include a serving of bitter greens, such as arugula, dandelion greens, endive, mustard greens, and watercress. Fresh sautéed dandelion greens are one of my favorite spring tonics—the bitter flavor encourages digestive enzymes and stimulates bile production, which helps the liver process toxins.
Flush out toxins with fiber:
Fiber speeds the removal of wastes from the body and naturally cleanses the intestinal tract. Soluble fiber (found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and oats) also binds toxins in the intestinal tract and prevents them from being reabsorbed.
Enlist the power of glutathione:
Considered to be the master antioxidant, glutathione enhances the activity of all other antioxidants and is essential for the major enzyme pathway in Phase II liver detoxification. Glutathione synthesis is dependent upon adequate protein intake, but the proteins must be rich in the glutathione precursors glutamine, cysteine, and glycine. The best source of these precursors is ‘non-denatured’ whey protein concentrate. Having these amino acids in the body at sufficient levels to build all of the glutathione it needs is critical.
There are also important cofactors that help to generate glutathione. These include selenium, vitamin C, bioflavonoids, and alpha lipoic acid. Foods rich in selenium include Brazil nuts, mushrooms, and seafood. Good sources of vitamin C and bioflavonoids include broccoli, cantaloupe, citrus, dark leafy greens, red peppers, and strawberries. Alpha lipoic acid occurs in very small amounts in a variety of foods, including broccoli, carrots, spinach, yams, and liver.
Defend your cells with cruciferous vegetables:
Arugula, broccoli (broccoli seeds/sprouts), Brussels sprouts, cabbage (cabbage seeds/sprouts), cauliflower, kale, wasabi, watercress, and other members of the cruciferous family contain sulfur compounds called isothiocyanates (ITCs) that support phase II detoxification, including the enhancement of glutathione. These compounds have been shown to protect cellular integrity, prevent cell damage, inhibit abnormal cell proliferation, and repair damaged cells. In cells that cannot be repaired, they induce apoptosis (programmed cell death).
ITCs are able to distinguish between cells that can be repaired and restore them, while identifying damaged cells that could mutate into cancer cells. ITCs work together with phenolic compounds found in berries, grapes, pomegranates, and olives. Diets rich in cruciferous vegetables and phenols (such as flavonoids) increase cellular and organ detoxification systems and inhibit DNA damage. Carotenoid and vitamin C rich foods further assist in cellular detoxification.
Spice up your life with culinary herbs:
Turmeric, basil, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, oregano, rosemary, and sage are not only delicious seasonings; they also offer powerful health benefits. These common culinary herbs are used daily and liberally in many traditional cultures, where they are valued for their ability to promote detoxification and for defense against a wide variety of toxins. I suggest adding 1/8 to ¼ teaspoon of powdered cinnamon and turmeric to morning smoothies as an easy way to incorporate the benefits of these protective herbs.
Recruit the protection of calcium D-glucarate:
Found in many fruits and vegetables, calcium D-glucarate inhibits beta-glucuronidase, an enzyme produced by bacteria in the intestines. Elevated beta-glucuronidase activity has been associated with increased cancer risk, particularly hormone-dependent cancers such as breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Good sources of glucaric acid include apples, grapefruit, oranges, and cruciferous vegetables.
Create a healthy internal environment:
Maintaining a healthy population of beneficial intestinal bacteria helps to neutralize toxins in the intestinal tract. Include fermented dairy products such as yogurt or kefir; naturally fermented unpasteurized pickles and sauerkraut; and naturally fermented miso or tamari in your daily diet to keep a healthy balance of friendly flora.
Create Foundational Support With Adaptogens
I find it interesting that in addition to the multitude of health benefits that herbal adaptogens provide, these beneficial herbs also aid in detoxification. Much of the early Russian research on primary adaptogens demonstrated significant protection from all types of toxicity, as well as enhanced detoxification. Adaptogens enhance the four ‘Life Requirements,’ defined as: 1) Energy, 2) Adaptation, 3) Protection, and 4) Reproduction. Before our bodies can engage in detoxification, we need to support the ‘Adaptive Response,’ which promotes the balance and integrity of the goals of the human system: survival, growth, reproduction, mastery, transformation (personal and environmental), as well as protection and detoxification. Once again, it is apparent that herbal adaptogens are one of the most important tools we have for protecting our health. It is for this reason that the daily use of herbal adaptogenic tonics is the foundation of my approach to vibrant health and wellbeing.