The Science of Detox

Meet the  Tribe

Our body is carrying out detoxification processes constantly.  Every minute we’re building up and breaking down hormones, enzymes, proteins, and a bajillion other compounds.  These actions cause reactions.  Reactions include byproducts.  Byproducts and compounds that can’t be used or recycled must enter the detoxification pathways.  It sounds exhausting; it can be for certain organs in your body.

An exhausted-looking organ.

An exhausted-looking organ.

When it comes to heavy lifting, it’s the liver, the kidneys, and the colon that are responsible for the action items on the detox to-do list.  And of these three, the liver is undeniably the point man.  It is here that most toxins are identified, detoxification enzymes manufactured, and the two paired together.  It’s also the liver that produces the bile needed to flush out heavier toxins with waste.

But they don’t work alone; the skin, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract are three other key players in the detoxification process.  Not only are these organs entrance points for toxins into the body, but they also offer detoxification pathways out through sweating, exhalation, and excretion.  The blood stream and lymph system are equally important for shuttling toxins from one processing plant to the next and eventually out with the waste systems.  If any one of these organs is inhibited or overloaded, the entire detoxification process can become congested.


Science Breakdown!

The actual detoxification process happens through two systems, referred to as Phase I and Phase II.  Phase I disables toxins by attaching an enzyme to each one, changing the substance from a fat soluble to a water soluble molecule.  This enzyme is from a group known as cytochrome P450 which is most active in the liver, kidney, and lung tissue.  For some toxins, this one-step process is enough to carry it into the waste system and out of the body.  Others require Phase II for further tagging and processing.  In some cases, the toxin may actually be more harmful to the body during this in-between stage, a transition known as biotransformation.  This dangerous activation requires an efficient Phase II pathway to avoid excessive toxin buildup in the body, which can lead to neural, immune, and endocrine disorders.  Phase I detoxification also produces free radicals due to the hydrolysis, reduction, or oxidation reactions taking place each time a toxin is disarmed and requires a diet rich in antioxidants to neutralize these molecules.

Yuck.  Just yuck.

The efficiency -or lack thereof- of Phase I detoxification is affected by a variety of factors.  The enzyme reactions are governed by 35 pairs of genes and are susceptible to individual genetic variances.  Injury or disease of the liver or kidney will slow Phase I detoxification, as will poor diet, age (old and young), and toxic environments.  Certain substances known to inhibit Phase I include a low protein diet, grapefruit juice, and a variety of drugs, such as antihistamines and proton pump inhibitors.  Some spice extracts slow Phase I detoxification and can be used therapeutically when an imbalance between Phase I and Phase II is present, allowing Phase II some time to “catch-up.”  These include curcumin from turmeric, caipsaicin from hot peppers, goldenseal, echinacea, and quercetin.


Substances that induce more Phase I activity include high protein diets, alcohol, and nicotine.  Healthier options that support Phase I pathways in a balanced and holistic way are brassicas, orange and tangerine peels, and dill and caraway seeds.  Each of these foods contains natural compounds that encourage Phase I efficiency.

Vitamins needed for healthy Phase I function include vitamins A, B1, C, and E.  Minerals required are copper, zinc, magnesium, manganese, sulfur, molybdenum, and iron.  Other important nutrients include choline, methionine, and lecithin, silymarin (an extract from milk thistle), CoQ10, and essential fatty acids.

Glutathione deserves special mention here as well.  It’s considered the most aggressive and most effective antioxidant in the body and plays in active role in all detoxification.  The body manufactures glutathione from L-cysteine, L-glutamic acid and glycine.  Although glutathione supplements are available, they tend to be very poorly absorbed and utilized.  For this reason, healthy protein intake is important in any detoxification regimen.

Phase II detoxification has the same goal as Phase I: to turn a toxin into a water-soluble substance that can be excreted.  Instead of hydrolysis, Phase II accomplishes this by conjugation, where a cofactor attaches to the toxin at a reactive site.  Some molecules must go through Phase I to have these active sites added, while other can move directly into the pathways.  This conjugation of a toxin by a detox compound “tags” them for trash removal.

Phase II detoxification uses six pathways in the body to accomplish its house cleaning.  The names are representative of the chemical group that are attached to the toxin and each one targets specific classes of toxins.  Any of these pathways can be slowed by deficiencies of their key compound, or by an overload of toxins that use their route.  These six pathways are called:

  • Glutathione conjugation
  • Amino Acid conjugation
  • Methylation
  • Glucuronidation
  • Sulfation
  • Acetylation

Substances that slow down the function of Phase II detoxification include NSAIDS, aspirin, and the cheery yellow food dye found in processed foods.  Phase II can also be slowed by a deficiency in selenium, vitamin C, vitamins B2 and B5, glutathione, and protein.

Amino acids are the rockstars of Phase II detoxification, especially those that contain sulfur such as taurine and cysteine.  Key vitamins are folic acid, B1, 2, 6, 5, and 12, and vitamin C.  The top minerals needed are germanium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, sulfur, and zinc.  Other essential nutrients are glycine, inositol, glutamine, and choline.  Phase II also depends heavily on healthy liver function for the production of bile; most Phase II toxins are excreted with solid waste.

We'll dive further into how to eat for detoxification in upcoming posts, but for now, take note of the importance of protein and the healthy functioning of bile (think: fat consumption).  We tend to turn to piles of vegetables and fresh juices when we're thinking CLEANSE! but this restriction can leave the detoxification pathways -Phase II, especially- hurting for some necessary nutrients.  For vegetarian detox support, include a plant-based protein powder like Garden of Life's sugar-free option here, and healthy fats from coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil.  Eating the meats?  Free-range eggs, seafood, pastured beef and wild game are your best bets.  Bone broth will provide an additional boost of helpful amino acids.  Enjoy grass-fed butter and coconut oil with your vegetables for full vitamin absorption.

This photo is in no way related to a cleanse but it popped up in my search and I loved it, so enjoy.

This photo is in no way related to a cleanse but it popped up in my search and I loved it, so enjoy.