The Benefits of Detoxification

Kirsten Brooks—07/2007
Detoxification is a vital component to natural health because toxic overload is behind so many chronic modern illnesses. Nutritionist Kirsten Brooks examines detoxification and its importance to health.

NOWADAYS DETOX PLAN are all the rage, with many celebrities extolling their virtues or endorsing their own particular regimes. But what really is detoxification and how important is it?

Detoxification is a key body function involving the elimination of metabolic waste and other toxins via the eliminatory organs- the skin and kidneys and especially the liver. As much of about 80% of all chemical processes that go on in your body involve detoxification activities and modern day living has led to an increased exposure to toxins. As well as the toxic by-products of our own metabolism, we are faced with toxins in what we eat and drink, as well as from alcohol, cigarettes, medical drugs, cosmetics, household cleaning products, not to mention pollution and environmental poisons.

Some critics consider that undergoing a detox is not necessary as the body is inherently able to handle toxins efficiently. However, naturopaths believe that due to an ever increasing exposure to toxicity than before there is a call for minimizing the burden on the liver. In fact, detoxing has always played a fundamental role in natural medicine. And moreover, cleansing programs have played a part of man's rituals for health and well-being as far back as 1800BC.

What are the signs you may need to detox?

There are many indications that your liver has become "sluggish" such as intolerance of alcohol and/or fatty foods, digestive problems like constipation, nausea, piles & bloating, low energy, headaches, irritability, skin conditions, aches and pains, P.M.S, high cholesterol, food intolerances and more. For instance, improving liver function helps to manage weight as the body will hold onto liquids as water retention or hold onto fat to store excess toxins it can't deal with. Hormonal problems like P.M.S can occur as the liver is not able to break down hormones efficiently and leads to an imbalance or accumulation of oestrogen. Any organ or system of the body will be left vulnerable to toxicity, if the liver is not able to break down toxins efficiently.

The efficiency of each person's liver varies enormously, for example, some one with a sluggish liver may even struggle to process caffeine. Whether a substance is bad for you depends as much on your ability to detoxify it as on its inherent toxic properties.

What is the objective of a detox?

Periods of cleansing give your liver a chance to detoxify and channel energy on revitalizing the body and many people report benefits such as clearer skin, increased energy and concentration, weight loss, improved digestion and much more.

For an effective detox, however, it is not only important to reduce the intake of substances that tax the liver, but to maximise the supply of nutrients required to optimize the liver's detoxification pathways. Many people with poor eating habits consume processed foods high in fat, sugar and additives which are also devoid in the nutrients needed to support detoxification, hence the need for adequate nutrient-rich food and supplementation.

The liver has two detoxification pathways known as Phase One and Phase Two requiring different nutrients for each phase. During Phase One, a toxic chemical is altered into a less harmful one, but free radicals are formed which require sufficient antioxidants to quench their activity. Without sufficient antioxidants, they can damage the liver cells. In Phase Two, a substance is added to this chemical to make it water soluble so it can be moved out of the body through the colon or through the kidneys. Foods that support each section will be outlined below.

Tips for detoxification:- Do's:

  • It is a good idea to try to source organic food to minimise the toxins from chemical sprays and drug residues.

  • Drinking plenty of water will aid the elimination of toxins through the kidneys-aim for at least 11/2 litres a day.

  • Drinking hot water with lemon juice on waking or before meals acts as a digestive stimulant and liver support due its bitterness and alkaline properties.

  • Eat a diet low in fat and high in fibre by increasing your intake of vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and pulses. This will assist your body in eliminating stored wastes. The Western diet is generally lacking in vitality and freshness, it is low in fibre and too refined which can lead to poor elimination: Constipation then adds to the stress on the liver because the liver receives toxins directly from the bowel- one of the greatest potential sources of toxicity. Therefore by ensuring regular bowel movements by increasing your water and fibre intake is very important.

  • Brightly coloured fruit and vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes, peppers, watercress, beetroot, sweet potatoes, berries, papaya & melon supply lots of beneficial anti-oxidants such as Vitamin C, E, beta-carotene and phytonutrients. Antioxidants limit the damage caused by Phase One liver detoxification and are especially critical for chemically sensitive people who tend to have an over-active Phase One. Some toxins such as nicotine over tax Phase One so smokers need extra antioxidants in their diets.

  • Phase One also requires adequate levels of B vitamins, selenium, zinc and glutathione. Brown rice is a good source of B vitamins plus zinc, brazil nuts contain selenium, whilst garlic, asparagus, watermelon, papaya, avocado and mushrooms all increase glutathione levels- one of the body's most important antioxidants.

  • An antioxidant complex containing a synergistic mix of antioxidants such as vitamin C, E, beta-carotene, curcumin, grape seed extract, quercetin plus liver-supportive nutrients such as selenium and zinc and alpha-lipoic acid will assist the program.

  • Vegetables particularly beneficial to Phase two liver detoxification are members of the Brassica family-broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kale. (The compound Indol-3-carbinole from the Brassica family is used as a supplement to assist the metabolism of oestrogen through the liver for people with PMS and other hormonal conditions). Garlic, onions, eggs, watercress (sulphur foods) and the spice tumeric also assist detoxification.

  • By increasing the vegetable content of the diet, this naturally increases the alkalinity of the diet. The body works more efficiently with an alkaline diet as it needs to maintain a pH of 7.4 in the blood, otherwise it takes the minerals from the cells if the diet is too acidic (Meat, hard cheeses, excess grains, sugar and alcohol are all acidic).

  • There are also the following which are generally supportive for liver function:

  • Artichoke has been clinically proven to help maintain a healthy liver by improving bile flow and can help lower cholesterol levels.

  • Milk thistle is a herb which protects the liver cells from damage and improves its function.

  • Dandelion is a digestive bitter that can help stimulate the liver and improve its function. You can buy dandelion root coffee (avoid the instant ones with lactose) from health food shops.

  • Lecithin (phosphatidyl choline) is an important nutrient for liver function and is needed for healthy bile for fat digestion and for preventing fatty deposits and cholesterol in the liver (and else where in the body such as the arteries.) Soya beans and eggs are a good source, or you can take lecithin granules and sprinkle them on your breakfast.

  • Zeolites are naturally occurring volcanic minerals that trap toxins in their cage-like structure reducing the toxic load to the liver. They do not trap any healthy minerals in the process and the only side effect is possible dehydration prevented by drinking adequate water. They have a particular affinity for heavy metals. But as they free up some of the liver's energy, this process allows more effective removal of other toxins such as pesticides, herbicides and dioxins. Therefore, it can be a useful addition to a detox program.

  • Probiotics (the beneficial bacteria) create healthy bowel conditions, reducing the toxic load on the liver as the bad bacteria generate toxins which the liver has to break down. Vegetables promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, whilst meat and milk can raise the putrefactive bacteria in the gut and a healthy colon is important to rectify a sluggish liver.

  • Try to eat lighter meals more frequently. It is especially important to have a lighter evening meal to try to limit the liver's work during the healing hours of sleep.

  • A liver flush may be a good way to kick start a detoxification. This involves ingesting olive oil, lemon juice, apple juice and Epsom salts and eating only vegetables on that day. This allows the removal of fat soluble toxins and gall stones which increases the function and efficiency of the liver.

  • Moderate exercise will assist detoxification, as will dry brushing which will stimulate your lymphatic system to carry waste products to your liver. A sedentary lifestyle makes the lymphatic system more sluggish, so try to limit the hours spent desk-bound or take regular breaks to move around.

  • Rest and relaxation aids the liver as stress hormones have to be broken down by the liver.

Tips for detoxification: Things to avoid

  • Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and recreational drugs as well as heavily processed or "junk" foods to minimise the burden on the liver. Caffeinated products over-stimulate the liver. Although green tea contains a small amount of caffeine, it contains higher levels of antioxidants so is preferable. Also avoid the use of unnecessary chemicals in the house where possible.

  • Avoid processed foods. Industrial food production has led to low levels of vitamins and minerals and high quantities of preservatives and other additives.

  • Avoid foods that are hard to digest and irritate the gut such as wheat and dairy so as to cleanse the digestive tract. Brown rice, oats, millet, buckwheat and quinoa, plus pulses and fish should be emphasized instead.

  • Sugar depletes many minerals and interferes with blood sugar control, forcing the liver to manipulate its glycogen stores more than normal.

  • Fried foods are a source of free radicals and other harmful substances which the liver has to process so avoid heating fats.

  • Saturated fat from meat, dairy and fat-laden snacks such as crisps and peanuts stress the liver. Liver cirrhosis occurs not only from excess alcohol but from excess fat as it damages the liver cells (especially if they are insufficient antioxidants in the diet). However, healthy oils are good in moderation such as those found in oily fish, flax seeds, walnuts, avocadoes and olive oil.

  • Meat should be limited whilst detoxing due to its acidity, high fat and high protein content. Toxins also tend to accumulate higher up the food chain and many meat products contain hormones and antibiotics that have to be broken down by the liver.

  • It is possible to have biochemical tests carried out to see how well your liver is detoxifying. This will highlight which pathways are working well and which aren't and then action can be taken to improve them with specific nutrients and herbs.

What can you expect from detoxing?

Detoxing can cause side-effects which are result of excess toxins being released which the liver can not handle quickly enough. These may include headaches, skin outbreaks, diarrhea or bad breath. Antioxidants and liver-supportive supplements limit these reactions.

However, it may be best to carry out a detoxification with the support of a health practitioner who can tailor the program to your individual needs. If you are suffering from serious liver condition such as hepatitis or cirrhosis, it is important you inform your physician before embarking on a detoxification.