Detoxification is a term that is easily tossed about in this Dr. Oz world of quick weight loss supplements, anti-aging pills and internet miracle wellness programs. From a purely scientific standpoint, detoxification is the process by which our bodies eliminate substances that are not required for, interrupt with, or negatively influence our metabolic and cellular processes. Informally it is the process of our bodies “taking out the trash.” For those who have seen the television show “Hoarders,” one can easily see that the ability to effectively detoxify, to “clean house,” is essential to a long, healthy and happy life.
Hold on to that image of a house filled with trash. Picture to yourself the inhabitant of that house clambering over piles of unneeded junk, stumbling over piles of unread newspapers, and blocking doors, kitchens and beds. Do the “stars” of these television shows look well, happy and content? Of course the answer is “no,” and the degree and incomprehensibility of their dysfunction is what rivets us to the television week after week.
I will provide a basic outline of the science behind detoxification, the availability and scientific rationale of detoxification practices, and what you can do to make the practice of “detox” part of your wellness practice. Many of these practices are quite simple. They require no more than breathing, breaking a sweat or having a good morning poop. We all need to take out the trash – so on to human body housekeeping 101.
I would like to take a moment to identify what constitutes a “toxin.” As described above, a toxin can be anything that is foreign to our body and could interfere with our body’s basic functioning. There are three broad categories of toxins: chemical, biological and physical. Chemical toxins include medications, heavy metals and organic compounds such as pesticides and alcohol. Our body needs to eliminate the “yellow dye #4” found in a Twinkie and has methods to do so. Biological toxins include the metabolic byproducts of bacteria, parasites and yeasts. Of importance, our body produces biological toxins daily from our own metabolic processes. Although made “naturally” by our bodies, these too need to be eliminated to maintain optimal health. A physical toxin is found in the small piece of plastic wrap inadvertently swallowed, the ink of a tattoo or a piece of dust in our lungs.
Chemically there are three steps to detoxification. The first two are known as Phase 1 and Phase 2 detoxification. These two steps take a compound, and through liver enzymes known as the cytochrome P450 system, take a substance and modify it to a water soluble compound. At the completion of Phase I detox, the activated compound is now even more toxic and needs to be rapidly bound and reconciled in Phase II. To effect this, the reactive intermediate is conjugated for removal with sulfur containing molecules (sulfonation), methyl groups (methylation), acetyl groups (acetylation) or glutathione (glucuronidation). These now “inactivated” chemical compounds are now ready for elimination from the body. But now how?
The final pathway for detoxification involves the physical removal from the body. There are four pathways by which we detoxify. We can breathe out the toxins, sweat out the toxins, urinate out the toxins or pass them in our stools. Naturally all four of these pathways should be optimally functioning to “clean house.”
The beauty of this is that all the steps outlined above are within the reach of our daily habits and patterns. To begin with we can limit our exposure to the toxins. We can drink less alcohol, eat less crappy, processed food, apply less nail polish and stop applying Roundup® to our lawns. We can try to eat more organically grown foods and be conscious of what cosmetics, creams and oils we are applying to our skin. We can resolve to finally stop smoking. We can be proactive in our health.
We can utilize foods and supplements to influence and guide the two phases of detoxification. Consume natural foods with high levels of phytochemicals – such as lutein and zeaxanthine (kale, brussel sprouts, chard), and lycopenes (tomatoes), and organic compounds such as resveratrol (found in red wine.) All shown to have positive effects on our ability to detoxify, and subsequently our health.
Sulforaphanes, compounds found in the cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, have been shown to influence the way that our DNA is read. Producing molecules that decrease inflammation in our bodies. All these foods help to support both Phase 1 and Phase 2 detoxification. I tell my patients to keep it simple and “eat a rainbow” with multiple servings of multicolored vegetables.
Dr. JM Seddon, in a Harvard study published in the elite Journal of the American Medical Association, demonstrated that dietary intake of carotenoids (found in dark, leafy green vegetables) reduced the risk of macular degeneration by 43%. So this means I can halve my risk of the number one cause of age related blindness by consuming healthy food? I raise my green drink and proclaim, “by all means!”
Exercise regularly (sweat), drink plenty of water (urinate), and learn to breathe. All these practices can be learned and help to support the detoxification process. Together we can help to guide you on your path to wellness.
Finally, we can optimize our bowel function. A well-functioning gut is essential for providing the amino acids for Phase 2 detox, and then for helping these conjugated compounds to leave the body. If you are not stooling once or twice daily, you are not eliminating all the toxins from your body. Plain and simple. If transit through the gut is too sluggish – chemicals and toxins can be reabsorbed through a well-studied process known as entero-hepatic (gut-liver) recirculation. To return to our house metaphor, this would be like taking the trash out to the front stoop but not bringing it to the street for pickup. Over time the gum wrappers, food bits and dust bunnies are going to stick to your shoes or get blown back into the house. We all need to stick to the entire game plan. Avoid, process and eliminate.
It has been said that “our body is a temple” and having spent decades of my life studying the mechanics, intricacies and wonders of the human body, I believe this to be true. But temples require constant care. They require cleaning, maintenance, and at the end of the day the trash needs to be taken out and brought to the curb. Even at the Taj Mahal.
We are blessed with one life and one body only.
Live in it as if it were the Taj Mahal.
Dr. Scott Resnick