What Is Detoxification?
The elimination of foreign compounds from the body, including substances such as cigarette smoke, caffeine and other drugs, is a natural and essential process to defend the body from harm. This occurs by the process of detoxification. Detoxification however is often a misunderstood process that has been exploited incorrectly by the media. True detoxification by the body is a process that occurs in the liver in two phases. The goal of detoxification is to identify harmful substances in the body, activate them and then excrete them.
What Needs To Be Detoxed?
- Xenobiotics – drugs, environmental pollutants, plastic, food additives, hydrocarbons, pesticides etc.
- Carcinogens – char-grilled meats, nitrates in processed meats, smoked foods, tobacco smoke, inhaled asbestos, benzene, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), aromatic amines etc
- Metabolic wastes
- Products of oxidative stress
How Do We Detox?
In short detox is as follows:
- The body is exposed to endogenous or exogenous toxins.
- Toxins are stored in fatty tissues.
- The body identifies the toxins, flags then activates them.
- The activated toxins are converted to water soluble molecules.
- Water soluble molecules can then be excreted from the body via urine or sweat.
The detoxification process in the body has two phases. The enzymes involved in phase one detoxification are known as ‘activators’; they activate the substance that needs to be removed, allowing the next phase to proceed. Phase I enzymes must exhibit just the right amount of activity for the detoxification process to be effective. Activated compounds in phase I are potentially harmful. The enzymes that take over from phase I are called ‘excretors’ because they catalyse reactions leading to the excretion of toxins from the body. These enzymes bind the chemical compound glutathione to the ‘active’ toxins from phase I, making them water soluble so they can be excreted through sweat or urine.
Adapted from Hodges R.E. & Minich D.M. (2015) Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism.
Phase 1 – Identification and Activation
- Toxins enter detox as being fat soluble which means they don’t mix with water and are transported via fat molecules.
- Phase 1 detoxification leads to small chemical changes that make the toxin more hydrophilic. The toxins are on their way to becoming water soluble.
- Phase 1 enzymes are known as ‘activators’. They activate the toxins that need to be removed and allowing the next phase to proceed.
- Cytochrome P450 enzymes (e.g. CYP1A1) are responsible for most phase I reactions.
- Phase 1 is activated by xenobiotics and carcinogens.
- Activated compounds in phase 1 are now in the intermediate phase while they wait to be processed by phase 2 enzymes.
- Activated flagged intermediate compounds are potentially harmful as they are a much more reactive form than the compound at the start of phase 1.
- Phase I enzymes must exhibit just the right amount of activity for the detoxification process to be effective.
Phase 2 – Neutralisation and Excretion
- Harmful activated intermediate compounds are neutralised and made less harmful.
- The enzymes in phase 2 are the excretors as they catalyse reactions leading to the excretions of toxins from the body. A catalyst is a compound that allows a chemical reaction to occur quicker.
- These enzymes bind the chemical compound glutathione to the ‘active’ intermediate toxins which neutralises the toxins and makes them water soluble.
- Water soluble compounds can now be excreted through sweat and urine.
The process of detoxification unfortunately doesn’t always occur smoothly and at the right rate in all phases for everyone. If phase 1 enzymes are too fast or too slow as well as phase 2 enzymes being too slow there will be increases in DNA adducts, tissue damage and increase risks for cancers.
Fast phase 1 and slow phase 2
- For detox to be effective, phase 1 should not happen quicker than phase 2.
- Leads to build up of intermediate compounds which can damage cells and exert systemic effects.
- A build up of intermediate compounds can increase oxidative stress
- Decreased activity or deletion of these genes has been associated with cancer and other diseases.
- Goal: reduce toxin exposure, increase antioxidant support and enhance phase 2 conjugation by supplementing with NAC, GSH, Ca-D-Glucarate and co-factors.
Inhibit phase 1 with:
- Naringenin (grapefruit juice)
- Curcumin (turmeric)
- Capsaicin (chili pepper)
- Eugenol (clove oil)
- Quercetin (onions)
- Medications such as benzodiazepines, antihistamines, cimetidine, stomach acid secretion blockers, ketoconazole and sulfaphenazole.
Slow phase 1 and fast phase 2
- If phase 1 is slow then the toxins are mostly staying in the fatty tissue around the body and not starting the process to be activated and then excreted.
- Stress hormones, medication, tobacco, compete for phase 1 enzymes. Therefore, the more there is of those substances circulating around the body, phase 1 detox of toxins is further delayed.
- If there is not the correct nutritional support to the liver, it becomes overwhelmed leading to inflammation and disease.
- Upregulate Phase 1 with cruciferous vegetables, vitamin B1, B3 and C, dill, caraway, tangerines
- Cruciferous and allium vegetables help increase the activity of your detoxification system, which aids the removal of harmful substances from your body.
- Reduce activation of phase 1 by reducing exposure to xenobiotics, carcinogens and avoid high protein diets.
Interventions To Improve Detoxification
We need a large variety of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (carotenoids, flavonoids, terpenes, indoles, isothiocynates) that support the enzymes and metabolic processes involved in phase 1 to 2 to function optimally. We find them in the following foods:
Allium family: onions, garlic, chives, leeks.
Brassica: broccoli, Brussel sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, radishes, horseradish, turnips, watercress, wasabi.
Other: Beets, celery, cucumber, spinach.
Avocado, cranberries, blueberries, apples, pears, grapefruit, lemons, oranges, citrus peel.
Leans, beans dry peas, chick peas.
Olive oil, canola oil, almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios.
Herbs and spices
Rosemary, cumin, turmeric, caraway and dill seeds and oil.
Wild caught salmon, sardines
Organic chicken, turkey, wild game
Follow healthy eating principles:
Consume a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruit daily.
Select foods which are whole and unprocessed without synthetic production.
Consume a minimum of six glasses of water per day.
Ensure optimal gut function by consuming high fibre foods such as whole grains (barley, quinoa, corn, rolled oats and wild/brown rice).
Maintain regular physical activity.
Detoxification PowerPoint Presentation
Sorting out the Value of Cruciferous Sprouts as Sources of Bioactive Compounds for Nutrition and Health
Abellán et al, 2019
Modulation of Metabolic Detoxification
Pathways Using Foods and Food-Derived Components: A Scientific Review with Clinical Application