I want to change what you think about detoxification.
Let me explain.
When I talk about detoxification, I don't mean making an appointment to get your colon cleansed or going on a fast. Because detoxification is not some part-time gig. Detoxification is a full-time job for your body; a natural, ongoing process that happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And with all the toxins and stress in the modern world, it is a lot of work.
You know that we are all exposed to toxins in the air we breathe, water we drink and products we use. (1) But are you aware that how well, or how poorly, your body is able to detoxify will in a large part determine how well or sick you feel?
Now scientists have discovered that what we eat could have a major impact on our ability to detoxify. In a moment I will talk about the special foods, herbs and spices that have been highlighted in the research, but first, let's look at some of the problems toxins cause and what the body does to detoxify.
As a physician I have observed that exposure to environmental toxins can promote a wide variety of ailments.My observation is confirmed in the New York University Medical Center guide Staying Healthy in a Risky Environment, which lists a vast number of symptoms and conditions that can be impacted by environmental factors.
The editors of Staying Healthy in a Risky Environment, Dr. Upton and Ms. Graber, clearly recognize the importance of environmental factors in illness.
The Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Controversy
In contrast, many in the conventional medicine establishment have dismissed the role that environmental exposures play, in particular with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). MCS is defined as "a chronic recurrent condition characterized by reduced tolerance to various environmental agents or to a class of chemical substances." (3) Researchers from the International Center for Toxicology and Medicine point out that when it comes to people suffering from MCS, there are two leading points of view.
The first sees MCS as resulting from interactions between chemicals and the body. The second argues that MCS "results from a primary emotional response to perceived chemical exposures." (4) According to this view, it's not the chemicals that cause the MCS, but it is psychological in origin. They are saying it could all be just in your head.
But I believe this view is outdated, based on emerging evidence of the physical impact on the body from toxic exposures. Recent research done in Italy found physical changes that indicated reduced detoxification ability for the people with MCS that were examined. (5)
What Your Body Needs to Detoxify
Your body needs to detoxify substances from outside the body (exogenous) and those made inside the body (endogenous).
Common External Sources That Need to Be Detoxified:
Common Internal Sources That Need to Be Detoxified:
- Toxins produced by intestinal microbes
Let's now look at some of the processes the body uses to rid itself of toxins. Many parts of your body are involved in the process of detoxification. The liver is the most important organ that rids the body of toxins. In addition to the liver, the lungs, intestines, kidney and skin play a big part in detoxification as well.
The Liver Performs Two Phases of Detoxification
As I explain in my book, Power Healing, the liver performs two phases of detoxification; Phase One (oxidation) and Phase Two (conjugation).
In Phase One, the liver uses oxygen and enzymes to burn toxins. This process is called oxidation, and makes the toxins more soluble in water. Making them more water soluble is necessary so they can be more easily excreted from the body by the kidneys or the liver. Most environmental toxins are fat-soluble to start with, and therefore difficult or impossible to eliminate without the liver's help. (6)
Although Phase One is crucial for detoxification, it poses risks. Sometimes the end product of phase one detoxification is more dangerous than the compound being detoxified. Benzene, for example, is a dangerous organic solvent present in gasoline and cigarettes, and a known carcinogen. (7) Phase One enzymes oxidize benzene, producing benzene quinones, which are a source of increased toxicity. (8) To complete the detoxification of benzene, your liver relies on phase two enzymes, which are described below.
The bottom line on Phase One detoxification is: you need it but you don't want Phase One activity to exceed the ability of your liver's phase two enzymes to finish the job, otherwise you're in trouble.
Increased Phase One Liver Activity without a balancing increase in Phase Two activity can be caused by:
- Tobacco smoke
- High alcohol intake
- Consumption of standard vegetable oils
- Eating char-broiled meats
- Consuming BHT
Medications can also increase or decrease Phase One liver activity in ways that are highly specific to the drug and its duration of use.
Intense scientific research being done around the world is examining how nutrition can help facilitate the detoxification process.
Scientists from the University of San Francisco note, "A judicious choice of food will counteract noxious agents. Therefore, the diet can be a major factor in determining who does and who does not show toxic symptoms following exposure." (9)
Foods Can Increase Phase One Liver Detoxification and at the same time balance it with an increase in Phase Two detoxification. They include:
- Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts (10-12)
- Oranges and tangerines
- Caraway seeds and dill seeds
No surprise that these foods are recommended for their health benefits.
Zinc plays an essential role in Phase One detoxification.
A deficiency of zinc doesn't stop Phase One detoxification, but shifts the activity of Phase One enzymes in a direction that encourages the formation of cancer promoting chemicals.
In my clinical experience, zinc deficiency, as measured by low plasma zinc levels, is quite common in the United States. Few foods are really rich in zinc, so supplementation is often useful.
Phase Two Liver Detoxification
To rid itself of toxins produced by Phase One detoxification, the liver performs a second phase called conjugation. In this phase, oxidized chemicals are combined with sulfur, specific amino acids or organic acids, and then excreted in bile. (13)
This phase of liver detoxification is inhibited by nutritional deficiency, toxic exposures and medications such as acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol), alcohol consumption, and low protein intake that deplete glutathione which is needed for acetaminophen detoxification.
The most important amino acids for Phase Two detoxification are cysteine and methionine
These two amino acids are the main dietary sources of sulfur and are found in meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Vegetarian sources of cysteine and methionine include nuts, seeds and beans. The usual adult RDA of cysteine and methionine is 700 to 1000 mg per day, but is never fixed because it fluctuates with the liver's burden of toxic compounds. The body's stores of these amino acids are depleted in the process of detoxification, so the greater the toxic stress, the more the body demands.
Bioflavonoids Stimulate Phase Two Detoxification.
Bioflavonoids are abundant in fruit, vegetables and tea, and are the active ingredient in many herbs. Research indicates that bioflavonoids can facilitate the detoxification process by stimulating enzymes. (14)
Scientists from the University of Seville in Spain note that the bioflavonoid luteolin has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activities and may help detoxification. (15) Luteolin is found in vegetables such as peppers, celery, carrots, in herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano and peppermint, and in olive oil. (16)
A prime example is milk thistle, an herbal folk remedy for the liver. The active ingredients are a group of bioflavonoids collectively called silymarin. Research indicates that milk thistle may offer protection from liver disease. (17) The standard amount of silymarin taken is 70 to 210 mg three times a day.
- Adequate protein intake
- Alliums such as onions and scallions, (18)
- Citrus fruit (19)
- Curcumin, from the spice Turmeric (20)
- S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe) (21, 22)
- Milk thistle (silymarin)
- Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts (See 10-12)
Our understanding of what the body needs to detoxify has been revolutionized by scientific research, teaching us the powerful role that enhanced nutrition plays in the process.
Now I'd like to hear from you...
Have you been exposed to environmental toxins?
How has the conventional medicine system responded to your symptoms?
Have you tried lifestyle changes or dietary supplements, or do you plan to?
Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.
Leo Galland, M.D.
Leo Galland, M.D. is an internist practicing in New York City and the Director of the Foundation for Integrated Medicine. Dr. Galland is the founder of Pill Advised, an online health application for learning about medications, supplements and food. Sign up for FREE to discover how your medications and vitamins interact. Watch his videos on YouTube and join the Pill Advised Facebook page.
1) Int J Toxicol. 2002 Sep-Oct;21(5):419-24. "Can nutrition affect chemical toxicity?" Furst A.
2) Staying Healthy in a Risky Environment, The New York University Medical Center Family Guide, How to Identify, Prevent or Minimize Environmental Risks to Your Health, Arthur C. Upton, MD and Eden Graber, 1993, Simon & Schuster p.275-358)
3) Ig Sanita Pubbl. 2009 Jul-Aug;65(4):363-76. "Multiple chemical sensitivity: a study in a young adult population in Italy" [Article in Italian] Trabacchi V, Riccò M, Pasquarella C, Signorelli C.
4) Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 1996 Aug;24(1 Pt 2):S8-15. "Multiple chemical sensitivities: distinguishing between psychogenic and toxicodynamic." Gots RE
5) Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2010 Apr 27. [Epub ahead of print] "Biological definition of multiple chemical sensitivity from redox state and cytokine profiling and not from polymorphisms of xenobiotic-metabolizing enzymes." De Luca C, Scordo MG, Cesareo E, Pastore S, Mariani S, Maiani G, Stancato A, Loreti B, Valacchi G, Lubrano C, Raskovic D, De Padova L, Genovesi G, Korkina LG.
6) Environ Health Perspect. 1983 Feb;48:65-71. "Research needs for hepatic injury due to environmental agents." Guzelian PS.
7) Environ Health Perspect. 1996 Dec;104 Suppl 6:1399-404. "Mechanistic considerations in benzene physiological model development." Medinsky MA, Kenyon EM, Seaton MJ, Schlosser PM.
8) Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 1996 Jan;136(1):49-56. "Differences in rates of benzene metabolism correlate with observed genotoxicity." Kenyon EM, Kraichely RE, Hudson KT, Medinsky MA.
9) Furst A. in Int J Toxicol. 2002 Sep-Oct;21(5):419-24
10) Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 1998 Aug;7(8):647-52. "Glutathione transferase null genotype, broccoli, and lower prevalence of colorectal adenomas." Lin HJ, Probst-Hensch NM, Louie AD, Kau IH, Witte JS, Ingles SA, Frankl HD, Lee ER, Haile RW.
11) J Food Sci. 2010 Aug 1;75(6):H190-H199. "Induction of Detoxification Enzymes by Feeding Unblanched Brussels Sprouts Containing Active Myrosinase to Mice for 2 Wk." Robbins MG, Hauder J, Somoza V, Eshelman BD, Barnes DM, Hanlon PR.
12) Adv Exp Med Biol. 1999;472:159-68. "Brassica vegetables and cancer prevention. Epidemiology and mechanisms." van Poppel G, Verhoeven DT, Verhagen H, Goldbohm RA.
13) Practical Gastroenterology, Vol. 5, No 4(July-Aug. 1981), pp. 26-30, "Environmental toxins and the liver", P.S. Guzelian. Cited in Power Healing, L. Galland
14) Curr Cancer Drug Targets. 2008 Nov;8(7):634-46. "Luteolin, a flavonoid with potential for cancer prevention and therapy." Lin Y, Shi R, Wang X, Shen HM.
15) Mini Rev Med Chem. 2009 Jan;9(1):31-59. "Distribution and biological activities of the flavonoid luteolin." López-Lázaro M.
17) Scand J Gastroenterol. 1982 Jun;17(4):517-21. "Effect of silymarin on chemical, functional, and morphological alterations of the liver. A double-blind controlled study." Salmi HA, Sarna S.
18) Drug Metabol Drug Interact. 2000;17(1-4):3-22. "Chemoprotection by organosulfur inducers of phase 2 enzymes: dithiolethiones and dithiins." Kensler TW, Curphey TJ, Maxiutenko Y, Roebuck BD.
19) Curr Med Chem. 2001 Feb;8(2):135-53. "Biological properties of citrus flavonoids pertaining to cancer and inflammation." Manthey JA, Grohmann K, Guthrie N.
20) Carcinogenesis. 1999 May;20(5):911-4. "Relation of structure of curcumin analogs to their potencies as inducers of Phase 2 detoxification enzymes." Dinkova-Kostova AT, Talalay P.
21) Alcohol. 2002 Jul;27(3):151-4. "Role of S-adenosyl-L-methionine in the treatment of alcoholic liver disease: introduction and summary of the symposium." Purohit V, Russo D.
22) Am J Clin Nutr. 2002 Nov;76(5):1183S-7S. "S-adenosyl-L-methionine: its role in the treatment of liver disorders." Lieber CS.
This information is provided for general educational purposes only and is not intended to constitute (i) medical advice or counseling, (ii) the practice of medicine or the provision of health care diagnosis or treatment, (iii) or the creation of a physician--patient relationship. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your doctor promptly.