De-Mystifying Detoxification

Detoxification can be an incredibly healthful part of the human experience, but it can create a world of harm if not approached in the right way for each individual.

Detoxification has gained popularity in recent years, becoming one of the most popular trends in the health and fitness industry. From daytime television shows to celebrity endorsements, many people promote their own approach, and thus a huge range, of detox methods. Whether it’s raw food, or the infamous Master Cleanse (a 7-14 day program where the participant consumes nothing but lemon, maple syrup and cayenne), there seem to be a myriad of choices (and little agreement) as to how one should “detox” their body.

What is Detoxing?

The concept of detoxification seems somewhat ambiguous as it is, so giving the practice some parameters is a good place to start. Very simply stated, detoxification is the process of removing unwanted substances (toxins) from tissues in the body. In more technical terms, detoxification can be defined as “the biotransformation of endogenous and exogenous molecules into excretable metabolites” (Textbook of Functional Medicine, 2010). The end-goal of detoxification is to leave the body cleaner than when you started, which ideally helps promote longevity and optimal function of tissues and organs. Understanding the mechanics and physiology behind detoxification can help you make an educated choice about your unique approach to detoxification.

Detoxification is a very important practice, when done well.

What is a Toxin?

Toxins are any unwanted substance in the body, and can be categorized into two types: exogenous and endogenous. Exogenous toxins, or xenobiotics, are any chemical or molecule that is foreign to your body system and that originates externally from the body. This includes substances in the environment, drugs, and even food.

Endogenous toxins are normal products of our cellular metabolism, or cellular waste produced by the natural activity of our own cells. Both forms of toxins can be harmful to the human body, however the prevalence and increasing exposure to exogenous toxins is making the job of clearing waste from the body much more difficult on the organs that work to clean our bodies.

Why Detoxify?

Detoxification is a very important practice, when done well. During the days of our hunter/gatherer ancestors, humans used to practice regular, seasonal detoxification based on the seasonal availability of foods. For example, after subsisting during the winter on stored meats, nuts and veggies, humans would naturally clean their bodies with the arrival of the spring’s first bitter greens, such as dandelion and chickweed, that enhance digestion and removal of stored waste. Now that most humans don’t eat a seasonal diet, we’ve lost the natural rotation of foods and herbs that function to detoxify our body with the seasons.

On top of that, we are exposing ourselves every day to a cocktail of chemicals in our air, food, water, and household items that our bodies have to cope with and are rarely given any assistance in processing. According to a 2002 report released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 4.7 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the environment in the United States alone. Regardless of how healthy one lives or eats, we cannot isolate ourselves from these environmental toxins. These toxins can accumulate in our tissues and become the cause of various health problems, including metabolic disorders, reproductive disorders, and cancers.

Toxin Exposure: How Do Toxins Enter the Body?

There are several factors that can increase our toxic load, some of which are within our realm of control and some of which are more difficult to control or avoid exposure.

Influences, such as age, gender, and certain medications also increase an individual’s toxic load.

Diet: The primary source of a highly toxic internal environment—and the one easiest to control—is diet. Individuals who consume a Standard American Diet, or SAD diet, expose themselves every day to a number of preservatives, artificial colorings, flavorings, and sweeteners that are very difficult for our digestive system, liver, and kidneys to process. Many individuals who eat a diet of highly processed foods are also overweight or obese, presenting another challenge in the toxicity realm: Many known toxins have are lipophilic, meaning they have an affinity for combining with fat, and get stored in the fatty tissues of the body. This creates a constant exposure to toxins that are being stored and circulated throughout the body.

Body Products: Another primary source of toxin exposure are body care products. According to a 2002 report by The Environmental Working Group, 12.2 million adults—one in every 13 women and one in every 23 men—are exposed to ingredients that are known or probable human carcinogens every day, through the use of personal care products. One in every 24 women—4.3 million women altogether—are exposed daily to personal care product ingredients that are known or probable reproductive and developmental toxins linked to impaired fertility and developmental harm to fetus, and even children. Switching to non-toxic, paraben-free make-up, shampoo and conditioners, soaps, perfumes, detergents, and cleaning products is one of the most influential ways you can significantly reduce your toxin exposure.

Other influences, such as age, gender, and certain medications also increase an individual’s toxic load, but can be mediated with regular and smart approaches to detoxification. Some biological conditions, such as a sluggish colon or poor digestion, can increase your toxic load, but can be reversed with certain herbal and supplement interventions. Common symptoms of a heavy toxic load include skin inflammation such as chronic acne, eczema, and psoriasis, being overweight or obese, headaches, fatigue, joint pain, cysts and masses, and in serious cases, cancer.

Primary Players: Organs of Detoxification

While all the organs in your body play some role in the process of detoxification, several organs stand out as those most responsible for clearing waste from the body.

Liver: The liver is the powerhouse of detoxification; it is the organ ultimately responsible for processing all of the food, medicines, and toxins that we put in our body, as well as responsible for either breaking down or recycling our own naturally produced hormones.

Detoxification at the site of the liver occurs in two main phases. During phase I, enzymes and nutrients initiate processes of oxidation and reduction to create a reactive site (like a concentration of the toxins) within the liver. During fasting, phase I activity increases substantially while circulating xenobiotics are freed from adipose and lean tissue; this results in a significant increase in toxic stress and therefore may not be the appropriate approach for chronically ill individuals seeking to detoxify. During phase II, the concentrated toxins are conjugated into their bioinactive, less toxic water-soluble forms that can then be excreted. One herb in particular stands out as a detoxifier of the liver: turmeric. Turmeric enhances the activity of the cytochrome P450 enzyme system in the liver that is responsible for the clearing of most toxins and metabolites.

Kidneys: The kidneys are also key organs of detoxification. While the kidneys clear waste products from our interior, they also function to retain water and substances that are beneficial to our health. Therefore, kidneys function as a filter that measure and balance the internal fluids and solids in our body.

The first step in picking a detoxification program is to establish your baseline.

When the liver is under a heavy toxic load, many toxins return to circulation and the role of elimination falls to the kidneys. The kidneys and the liver have a very dynamic partnership in that many of the toxins that are conjugated in phase II detoxification within the liver are then excreted via the kidneys. Dandelion leaf is an excellent kidney tonic that enhances the ability of the kidneys to flush toxins from circulation, as well as clear edema from the body. Dandelion leaf has the added benefit over conventional diuretics in that it preserves potassium levels in the body, rather than deplete them.

Skin: The skin is another important organ of detoxification to consider because while it may not be the strongest, it is most certainly the largest organ of elimination. Impaired detoxification at the level of the liver and increased toxic stress placed on the kidneys often manifests as chronic skin disorders. Keep this in mind: As we cleanse our bodies and remove waste, toxins and illness will move from our deeper, vital organs outwards, so we may initially experience a “healing crisis” that manifests in the skin. It is normal to experience acne or other skin eruptions during a detoxification, however this side effect can be mediated by using herbs that support healthy skin function. Dermal Health by HerbPharm is a blend of alternative herbs that function to maintain optimal skin health and elimination.

Stomach: The gastrointestinal lining is the first point of contact for the majority of xenobiotics entering our body. Integrity of the tight cell junctions in the intestinal mucosa allows us to absorb nutrients across the epithelial membrane, yet protects us from toxins and larger molecules entering into circulation. Food allergies, pharmaceutical drugs, and a poor diet can all contribute to increased gut permeability, which serves to increase our toxic load and has been directly linked to multiple autoimmune diseases. Our intestines are also home to a great diversity of biotica, or gut flora. This gut flora is the good bacteria that helps support our Gut Associated Lymphatic Tissue and protects us from potentially harmful bacteria, pathogens, and toxins. To improve the quality of the digestive tract and support our gut flora, a combination of digestive bitters and a good probiotic, will help support the gastrointestinal role in reducing the body’s toxic load.

Blood: The blood is the transporter responsible for bringing oxygen and nutrients to our tissues and cells, as well as carrying away toxins and cellular waste. Impaired circulation, or blood stagnation, can either be caused by or be a result of a heavy toxic load. Improving the circulatory system with traditional blood purifiers such as ginger and red clover help enhance the body’s ability to remove toxins from the tissues via the blood.

Many herbalists believe in the seasonal approach to a detoxification is the most effective.

Lungs: Finally, the lungs. The lungs remove carbon dioxide from the body, and bring in new oxygen to nourish our cells, and are one of the primary organs responsible for maintaining the acid/base balance in the body. When the body has a heavy toxic load, or the ability of the lungs to clear vapor toxins from the body becomes impaired, we experience symptoms such as chronic respiratory infections or even asthma. Supporting the integrity of the lung tissue is an important step in reducing the overall toxic load of the body. Marshmallow is one of the best overall lung tonics to support the health of lung tissue.

Approaches to Detoxification

While there are many approaches to detoxification, ranging from extreme fasting to cleaning up the diet, finding the detox program that is most suited to you will ensure that you are undertaking this experience safely and effectively.

The first step in picking a detoxification program is to establish your baseline. If you are starting from a place of eating a SAD diet, then an extreme fasting detox will do you much more harm than good. You would benefit more from a detox that focuses on transitioning to a clean eating diet while taking herbs to protect your body from toxins being released from fat tissue as you lose weight (herbs to support the liver and blood are especially important at this stage).

If you already eat an incredibly clean, whole foods diet then you may be ready to push yourself with a fasting-based detox, although this is best done under the care and guidance of an experienced practitioner.

Many herbalists believe in the seasonal approach to a detoxification as the most effective and safest for the vast majority of individuals. A seasonal detoxification breaks down the process of detoxifying by a diet centered around the foods available that time of year, the internal organs correlated with that season and the herbs that primarily influence those organs.

The only season where we really don’t want to attempt detoxification is in the winter. Winter is a season of stillness and scarcity, so our bodies are evolutionarily programmed to hold onto anything stored in our tissues. Forcing our bodies to act against the natural cycle of the seasons by losing weight or detoxing can do more harm than good; for example, our immune system tends to be more susceptible during this time period, and forcing it to work harder while one detoxifies can open you to illness.

Written By Betsy Miller, MS, CNS, LDN
Clinical Herbalist, Nutritionist and Health Coach at A Balanced Life Wellness

Betsy's practice focuses on integrating herbal medicines, nutritional counseling, and lifestyle coaching, that helps her clients move towards a new and positive state of well-being.

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