by Judith A. DeCava, C.N.C., L.N.C.

What is it? Elimination of poisons or toxins. Why do it? Because we’re subjected to a huge quantity of environmental contaminants these days which can produce “unfavorable health effects.” Health hazards associated with exposure to environmental toxins include “autoimmune” diseases, cardiovascular disorders, kidney damage, digestive tract disturbances, diseases of the nervous system such as Parkinson’s disease, sick building syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities, chronic fatigue syndrome, cancers, gland and hormone disruptions, infertility, spontaneous abortion, low birth weight, obesity, and much more.

Of course, decreasing the amount of toxins in the environment and reducing our own exposure to toxins are important. But it’s not enough. Truth is, we can’t totally escape toxin exposure in today’s world. We all carry some degree of toxic load. We’re exposed to toxins all during our lifetime—small amounts that accumulate over time, creating a large body burden. Yet, we can provide some degree of protection from the influence of these toxins by promoting and supporting the systems inside our bodies that break down and protect the body from these effects. Detoxification is a time-honored practice of limiting yourself to certain foods for a short period of time, of consuming certain herbs or plants, massage, exercise, and using heat and water to sweat.

Detoxification is not a specific process of physiology. But the body definitely does have a built-in system by which wastes and toxins are broken down and eliminated. Detoxification “has achieved scientific substantiation” whereby toxin exposure is reduced and the body’s own detoxification system is supported and enhanced to function to its best ability. Since we can overwhelm our built-in detox system by exposure to poisons and pollutants, drugs, excess alcohol, tobacco, foods with toxic residues and additives, and refined and over-processed non-foods (which stimulate production of toxins in the body), there is need for some type of detoxification program.

Actually, a detoxification system is present in most tissues of the body. And to function properly, they need all known and unknown nutrients from natural, nutrient-dense foods. Some organs and tissues are particularly involved in detoxification processes, such as the liver and lymphatic system. Wastes are normally eliminated through the kidneys, digestive tract, respiratory tract, and skin.

Detoxification is a many-faceted and complicated process. The majority of toxins and drugs are fat-soluble, many of which get trapped in fat cells, and are stored there. A lot of them could be eliminated through your urine or feces if they were changed into non-toxic, water-soluble molecules. This occurs through a two-step process called Phase I and Phase II detoxification.

Phase I uses complex enzyme reactions to break down toxins in your body. Then they become less dangerous substances. In Phase II, a substance in your liver attaches to a toxin and makes it water-soluble so it can be eliminated through your urine. There are a series of reactions in Phase II that require a replenishable source of helpers including certain amino acids, sulfates, glutathione, choline, folate, other B vitamins, magnesium, and more. If this phase is not properly completed, you can end up more toxic than before. Pesticides, excess alcohol, and refined carbohydrates are a few of the less-than-desirable items that can interrupt this phase. Virtually all cells in the body have some of the Phase I and Phase II enzymes with which to perform detoxification and provide protection from toxins. Remember, all those cells need all natural nutrients.

One of your liver’s many jobs is modifying and eliminating poisonous wastes and byproducts. It makes toxic substances water-soluble so they can pass easily through the kidneys, or it dissolves them in bile to be eliminated in the feces. Your overworked liver can gradually lose its ability to break down and eliminate toxins. Toxins may be only partially broken down (remaining somewhat poisonous) and begin accumulating in the liver’s cells and ductwork. This not only further sickens the liver, but stockpiled toxic waste begins leaching out of the liver, affecting other tissues. Your body has to scramble to try to eliminate toxins through less efficient, less reliable, secondary routes—such as the pores of your skin, intestines, or lungs.

The detoxification system occurs mostly in the liver, although the small intestine is very important in removing toxins. About 25% of detoxification and removal of toxins occurs in the intestine. Not only does the intestine move wastes along and out, but once toxins are deactivated in the intestines, they can’t re-enter the body. When the large intestine is burdened by excess waste content, toxins may be reabsorbed into your body, setting up a vicious, down-spiraling cycle. So, it’s important that the colon can move things along; it may need support so that toxic wastes are indeed eliminated.

The kidneys are the outlet for water-soluble wastes and acids. It’s important to keep them in good working order. Drinking plenty of water is certainly one effective method.

The lymphatic system plays a crucial role in removing cellular waste and toxins from the body. It circulates fluid, collecting and transporting many substances. Smooth muscle tissue makes the vessels contract to move the fluid along. Deep breathing and physical movement also help pump lymph and they increase the amount of “interstitial” water produced by cells each day—which means more fluid for carrying wastes and toxins out of the body. Cayenne pepper, horseradish, and ginger stimulate lymph movement; the herb cleavers is especially beneficial.

The body goes through regular cycles of food processing (usually during the day) and detoxification (usually during the night). When your body doesn’t get food for a while, it goes into the detoxifying mode—the theory behind fasting. But, fasting is not as advisable these days as it once was. For one thing all the detoxifying and eliminative mechanisms have to be working properly from the start. This is not the case for most people. Even a one-day fast may produce much discomfort. Folks with chronic diseases are saturated with waste materials—they don’t have the stamina, nutritional status, or tissue function needed to fast safely. When people fast, their bodies break down protein from the muscles and liver to provide blood sugar (glucose) for the brain. Then fat cells are tackled. This can overload the kidney and liver with toxic byproducts like ammonia and urea. It can also upset the electrolyte balance. And, as fat cells break down rapidly during fasting, the fat-loving toxins that have been stored in the fat cells are also released. This also can overload the kidneys and liver, chemicals can migrate to other parts of the body, and all sorts of trouble can occur. Women of childbearing age, women who are pregnant or nursing, people with diabetes or cancer, children, elderly people, anyone with irregular heartbeats, people taking prescription medications, and anyone with a history of eating disorders or mental illness should definitely not try fasting.

Of course, fasting can mean anything from extended periods without nourishment (just water) to consuming juices, broth, or even light fruit for a time. Short term fasting (1 to 3 days with fresh juices) may produce benefits—reducing the enormous amounts of energy usually consumed by the process of digestion so the body can divert its energies to detoxification, healing, and regeneration. But long term fasting can be extremely stressful. You don’t gain much by reducing kidney and bowel function to negligible levels, which thwarts detoxification and allows toxins and irritants to accumulate! And too many people already suffer with chronic malnutrition—no need to further deplete the body! While it’s true that, throughout history, people have always gone through periods when little food was available, today we “suffer” with excess-calorie malnutrition: overabundance, de-natured non-foods, and excessive stimulation and stress.

The best idea is a moderate plan that will release toxins at a slower rate and aid the whole detoxification and elimination processes. For some people, detoxing under a doctor’s supervision or other health professional is advisable.

Simple, natural foods should be consumed. To reduce stress for the liver and digestive tract, fatty and hard-to-digest foods can be minimized.

The juice from fresh vegetables and fruits is easily digested and assimilated, and provides concentrated nutritional support. These juices provide the body with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and enzymes to power the natural detoxifying activities of cells and organs. A “masticating” juicer elicits the most nutrients from fruits and veggies.

Whole fruits speed up waste removal as well as provide needed nutrients. Vegetables provide a plethora of nutritional components. Some vegetables—like cabbage, broccoli, kale and others in the cruciferous family—and some fruits—such as apples, grapefruit, and cherries—contain D-glucarate, a powerful detoxification agent. Leafy green veggies and some other vegetables are rich in chlorophyll. Chlorophyll helps to cleanse the kidneys and to cleanse and build the blood. It activates production of cell organelles that are responsible for detoxification. Glutathione is a critical detoxification agent, converting toxins into water-soluble forms that can be eliminated by the kidneys. High levels are found in the lungs, but it’s especially concentrated in the liver. Foods rich in glutathione include raw fruits and vegetables (levels drop with cooking). Avocados and asparagus are particularly good sources. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and other cruciferous vegetables also boost glutathione levels. Beet root and greens help the liver with detoxification as do dandelion greens and root, radishes, and burdock root.

Fiber is beneficial to a detox program too. Fiber supports the health of the intestinal walls—which decrease toxic burden and provide a first line of defense for the body. Fiber helps remove toxins that are excreted from the liver through the bile, and may decrease the absorption of some toxins. Some fibers, like rice bran, actually bind to toxins, removing them before they can even interact with the body and cause damage.

Herbs can help with detoxification. Milk thistle contains silymarin and other components that increase Phase II detoxification and helps protect and heal the liver. Turmeric’s contents like curcumin enhance Phase I and Phase II detoxification. Traditional medicine has long used artichoke to aid liver function; it also contains a cleansing compound called inulin. Siberian ginseng enhances liver function and reduces levels of enzymes and other factors linked to liver disease. It may temper the effects of a number of toxins. Some herbs may inhibit heavy metal absorption. Garlic might prove helpful in this as well as grapeseed extract and cilantro.

“Healthy digestion can have a profound effect on detoxification.” If there is some digestive difficulty, then supplemental assistance may be needed for a while until all the digestive organs and tissues are functioning better.

An effective detoxification regimen includes: 1) minimizing exposure to toxins, 2) consuming foods and nutrients that have beneficial metabolic effects, 3) getting adequate exercise, adequate sleep, and helpful stress management techniques, and 4) using massage, sweat bathing, and other means to aid the body to rid itself of toxins.

Massage increases the flow of blood and lymphatic fluid, both of which carry wastes away from cells. Sweat bathing (like sauna) is an ancient practice and simple way to encourage the skin’s natural detox process. Make sure to drink plenty of water during and after! If you’re pregnant or have high blood pressure, consult your doctor first.

Cleansing or detoxifying is not a magic bullet. You can rid your body of many toxins, but if you don’t make changes that eliminate the source of the toxins from your life, you wind up having to cleanse yourself again and again—which is neither natural nor desirable. Some people become fanatical about cleansing and keeping the body in a constant eliminative mode instead of restoring and rebuilding. But, really, the more you build up—with whole food nutrients, exercise, stress-reduction, etc.—the more you clean out. To activate detoxification enzymes and processes in the body, feed it well with fresh, organic, nutrient-rich, whole foods. In scientific studies, whole foods are proving to be much more effective than isolated nutrients.

So, after you complete a detoxification program, let your diet be your continuing detox by choosing foods that support the body’s ability to rid itself of toxins and by eliminating foods that expose you to harmful compounds. Don’t go into the “junk today, detox tomorrow” mode! Consistently practice healthy behaviors such as consuming natural foods, drinking plenty of clean water, getting adequate sleep, and exercising regularly.

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© 1995 – 2009, Judith A. DeCava