Detoxification 101 with Dr. Jessica Christie
Apr 15, 2022
The topic of detoxification is often taboo, as many fad “detoxes” can be more harmful than helpful. On the other hand, we’re constantly exposed to environmental toxins on a daily basis from chemicals in cleaning products, to air pollutants, and pesticides on food. Sure our bodies have natural detoxification systems in place, but should we be actively supporting them?
To get the facts straight, we talked to Dr. Jessica Christie, a Naturopathic Doctor and a Certified Nutrition Specialist, to clarify what detoxification really means and what we can do to address exposure to environmental toxins in our daily lives.
First off, what exactly are toxins, and is detoxification something we should all be actively doing?
A toxin is basically any substance that is poisonous or “toxic” to humans. They are abundant in our environment coming from plants, animals, bacteria, heavy metals, and certain chemicals (1).
Detoxification is simply the process of eliminating toxins from the body. Detoxification is also known as biotransformation. Essentially, our bodies are transforming certain toxins into a form that can be more easily eliminated from the body. Luckily, this is something that our body already does consistently and not something that we must actively “do”. A healthy body will have a healthy detoxification system in place working to cleanse out these toxins before they are given the chance to cause any damage.
How does the process of detoxification work in the body?
Detoxification (biotransformation) takes place in the liver in three phases. The liver detoxifies toxins, hormones, and other metabolites.
Phase 1 uses specialized enzymes in the liver to convert these toxins and metabolites into intermediary products. These intermediary products are even more toxic than the original toxin/hormone, but have no fear…
Phase 2 takes those more toxic products from Phase 1 and converts them again, which makes the products water soluble for easier elimination. There are several steps to Phase 2, but one of the most important steps is called “methylation.” This is a process where compounds donate a methyl group (1 carbon with 3 hydrogens) to another compound to convert it into a different form. Some individuals have a genetic predisposition toward poor methylation, making Phase 2 a little more difficult for those individuals.
Phase 3 is when the water soluble products are excreted out of the body via the organs of elimination (usually through urine or stool). (2)
Besides the liver, there are other organs that are involved in our bodies’ natural detoxification process. Tell us more about those!
A healthy gut is so important for overall detoxification since it is the main route of elimination. Our gut must be functioning properly and moving sufficiently (having bowel movements daily!), in order to get these toxins out.(3) If the gut is in an unhealthy or sluggish state, we run the risk of having certain toxins or hormones reabsorb into the bloodstream instead of leaving our bodies.
Kidneys filter out toxins from our blood and liver pathways and excrete them through the urine. Kidneys not only excrete toxins but also prevent us from reaching a toxic level of certain nutrients and vitamins (such as excess vitamin C and B vitamins). (4)
Lungs eliminate gaseous toxins through our exhales. Even though basic breathing is typically overlooked in talking about detoxification, studies show that roughly 250 chemicals can be found in human breath.
Lymph is an important fluid that has many functions. For detoxification purposes, it circulates throughout the body and carries waste products, which it dumps into the bloodstream. From there, the toxins can get filtered by the kidneys.
So, if our body naturally detoxifies itself, are extreme detox programs beneficial?
In modern society, we are bombarded with toxins from every direction: the polluted air we breathe, the pesticide-ridden food we eat, the chemicals we drink in our water, etc. Our detox pathways are likely strained in ways never seen in human history. When our body’s detoxification pathways slow down, toxins can accumulate and must be stored somewhere. As a safety mechanism, our body stores these toxins in our fat cells to keep them from circulating into our bloodstream and causing damage to our organs. It is therefore quite tempting to use a detox program to cleanse the liver/other organs of elimination.
However, even though extreme detox programs are very trendy, they are almost always too intense, unnecessary, and potentially harmful, especially when done outside of a physician-supervised program. These trendy detox programs make it sound as if we need to be actively forcing our bodies to detox. However, detox is an automatic process that the human body already does on its own. There is no need to force our organs to overwork. Instead, overburdened livers need more gentle support in order to optimize their function and do their job more effectively and efficiently.
For those wanting to incorporate a daily, gentle herbal remedy for supporting the detoxification process, I recommend Apothékary’s Bittersweet Symphony. This blend was designed to optimize healthy liver function and is packed with nutrient rich herbs that support all of our organs of detoxification. It was formulated for daily use to gently support our bodies without being too intensely “detoxifying”.
How do we prevent toxin buildup in the first place, and what can we do on a daily basis to support our elimination pathways?
While exposure to some toxins is inevitable, one of the best ways of supporting (rather than forcing/overexerting) your detoxification pathways is to decrease exposures to toxins. Air purifiers, water filters, and organic food are a great start. This will lessen the overall burden on our livers, which will therefore free up their “to-do list” and support them to function optimally.
Another important way to support our detoxification efforts is to ensure we have adequate nutrition. These detox pathways require specific vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to function, so giving our bodies the building blocks it needs is a simple way to improve function. This is also a reason why fasting can be dangerous because you are depriving yourself of the nutrients that are needed to properly detox. Fasting can put an incredible burden on our livers and bodies as a whole.
Supporting the detoxification pathways is crucial for disease prevention and overall wellness. Our organs of elimination must first be functioning properly, followed by support for the first two phases of detoxification. Oftentimes these intense “cleanses” go in the wrong order where they are heavily assisting the Phase 1 detoxing without addressing methylation or elimination. This is when we can see more harm being done because we are having a build up of the more toxic metabolites without proper mechanisms in place to get rid of them.
Anything else that readers should know?
A healthy body will have a detoxification system in place constantly working to cleanse out toxins. But in our increasingly “toxic” society, our organs of elimination often need some gentle support. Through clean lifestyle choices—drinking clean water, choosing organic foods when possible, replacing chemical house cleaners and body products, and adding liver-supporting herbs to our diets—we can optimize the natural detoxification process.
- Toxins: MedlinePlus medical encyclopedia. (2021, April 24). MedlinePlus - Health Information from the National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002331.htm
- Chiang, J. (2014). Pathobiology of human disease: A dynamic encyclopedia of disease mechanisms. Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-386456-7.04202-7
- Azzouz, L. L., & Sharma, S. (2021). Physiology, Large Intestine. StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507857/#:~:text=The%20large%20intestine%20has%203,toward%20the%20rectum%20for%20elimination
- Pizzorno, J. (2015). The Kidney Dysfunction Epidemic, Part 1: Causes. Integr Med (Encinitas), 14(6), 08-13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4718206/
- Genuis, S. J., Beesoon, S., Birkholz, D., & Lobo, R. A. (2012). Human excretion of bisphenol a: Blood, urine, and sweat (BUS) study. Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/185731
- Genuis, S. J., Beesoon, S., Lobo, R. A., & Birkholz, D. (2012). Human elimination of phthalate compounds: Blood, urine, and sweat (BUS) study. The Scientific World Journal, 2012, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1100/2012/615068
- Sears, M. E., Kerr, K. J., & Bray, R. I. (2012). Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat: A systematic review. Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/184745
- Corradi, M., & Mutti, A. (2013). Exhaled breath analysis in occupational medicine. Volatile Biomarkers, 117-128. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-44-462613-4.00007-6
- Lymphatic system: Parts & common problems. (2020, February 23). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/21199-lymphatic-system
- Mitra, S., De, A., & Chowdhury, A. (2020). Epidemiology of non-alcoholic and alcoholic fatty liver diseases. Translational Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 5, 16-16. https://doi.org/10.21037/tgh.2019.09.08