When I use the word detoxification, I am not referring to things like juice fasts or liver flushes. Although there may be a time and place for those, I generally prefer gentler approaches that focus on supporting the body’s natural detoxification capabilities. When someone’s detoxification pathways are not functioning properly, rather than fast or cleanse, it is just as effective (and safer in my opinion) to set aside a month (or several) to concentrate on healing this aspect of our health via specific dietary and lifestyle adjustments, as well as some simple herbs. This is what I want to share with you today.
The science of detoxification
The body’s detoxification pathways are a complex mechanism that takes care of eliminating both exogenous (external) and endogenous (internal) toxins. Detoxification occurs naturally in every cell of your body, all day long, as part of something called the methylation cycle. But the liver plays the leading role in ridding our bodies of chemicals & excess hormones, by breaking them down, transforming them, and eliminating them. This is done via the action of two sequential steps referred to as phase 1 and phase 2 detoxification.
Phase 1 involves blood filtration and bile secretion, and beginning to transform toxic chemicals into less harmful chemicals. It also converts fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble toxins so that they can more readily be eliminated. Phase 2 involves enzymes from the liver attaching small chemicals to toxins to either neutralize them, or more easily excrete them. Following these phases, the toxins must then be eliminated via our urine and bowel movements, which requires a healthy digestive system and happy kidneys. This is where constipation or inadequate fluid intake can severely impact the body’s ability to completely remove these toxins.
The detox mechanisms can get backed up and become sluggish due to many things, including environmental toxins, drugs, lifestyle and diet. I should also note that genetic predispositions (such as MTHFR gene mutations, which impairs the methylation cycle) can play a role in how well we naturally detox or not.
How do you know if your detoxification pathways are overloaded?
This can present itself in a variety of ways, and it can be different from one person to the next, depending on which phase of the detoxification process is compromised, and what kind of toxins or hormones are present in excessive amounts.
Signs of an overloaded detoxification system includes:
- Hormonal imbalances – including PCOS, irregular cycles, estrogen dominance
- PMS / PMDD
- Cysts in the breast or ovaries
- Skin problems like acne and rashes
- Unexplained infertility
- Chronic fatigue, low energy, fibromyalgia
- Foggy thinking, trouble concentrating
- Headaches, migraines
- Unexplained weight gain, inability to lose weight
- Depression, anxiety
- Agitated sleep, insomnia (especially waking up around 2-3am)
- High sensitivity to medications, foods, alcohol, coffee
It is worth noting that many of the hormonal imbalances that plague women (and men!) are directly caused by impaired detoxification pathways, and can therefore often be addressed by improving natural detoxification.
Why detoxing is important for hormonal health
The liver is involved in our hormonal health in many ways. One of it’s roles is to help manage blood sugar and store glycogen (a form of sugar). When it fails at doing this, it signals the adrenal glands to activate it’s stress response and they start producing cortisol. To produce lots of cortisol, the body utilizes progesterone as a substrate – something called a progesterone steal. So you not only end up stressed out, but the lowered progesterone levels are very problematic because it leaves estrogen unopposed, creating estrogen dominance.
Blood sugar management in the liver is also involved in the conversion of thyroid hormones. When the liver is unable to play it’s part, hormonal synthesis slows down, and the thyroid becomes sluggish. You guessed it, this can lead to hypothyroidism.
All the hormones our body produces, as well as those taken from drugs or hormonal therapies, have to be filtered through the liver at some point, and excess hormones need to be safely eliminated. The liver acts as the hormone processor, regulating hormone levels, as well as directing hormones to perform their functions throughout the body. If detoxification pathways are sluggish, or an excess of hormones is introduced into the body (such as through hormonal contraceptives, hormone therapies, etc), the liver may not be able to keep up, which will result in a hormonal imbalance.
Estrogens are the major sexual hormone group for women. Balanced levels are incredibly important for our health. Phase 1 is the main metabolic pathway for processing estrogens (estradiol, estrone, and estriol). The body and liver convert estrogens from stronger forms into weaker forms, breaking them down to allow them to be excreted. But if this process does not go smoothly, the liver may release the more potent estrogens back into the blood stream. Tissues in a woman’s body that contain a lot of estrogen receptors, such as in the breast and uterus, will then be more vulnerable to excess estrogen activity, which can lead to things like fibroids or the stimulation of estrogen-sensitive cancers. This also leads to estrogen dominance, which can cause a long list of issues, from endometriosis to severe PMS.
Balancing phase 1 & phase 2
A common way in which the detoxification process gets backed up is that phase 1 detoxification is too fast, but phase 2 is sluggish and can’t keep up. Reactions in phase 1 produce an intermediate product called a free radical, which are potentially more toxic than the initial molecules! When these compounds are not eliminated properly, they can linger, recirculate, and put the person at an elevated risk of inflammation, tissue injury, cell membrane damage, and even cancer.
Eventually, toxins that have not been fully detoxified also get stored in fat (including hormones), because that is the safest place for them to end up. And you guessed it, a sluggish liver is a major culprit of weight gain, and difficulty in losing weight!
Some common substances that can cause overactivity of phase 1, and should therefore be avoided by those who are trying to improve their detoxification pathways are: caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and most pharmaceutical drugs.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean that things like alcohol and caffeine need to be avoided at all costs. Stimulating phase 1 detoxification isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that phase 2 needs to be healthy and ready to handle what phase 1 throws at it. This is why moderation is key, and why there is a big difference between drinking one small cup of coffee every day versus drinking 4 espressos every morning.
Many nutritional deficiencies are known to slow down phase 2 – vitamin C, B1, B5, selenium, zinc, magnesium, choline, folate, and vitamin B 12 are all extremely important for this process. This is important to note given that it is estimated that at least 40% of people are deficient in some of these basic nutrients. Aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil & acetominophen also slow down phase 2.
There are also many other things that can negatively impact detoxification pathways:
- Artificial preservatives
- Environmental toxins like pesticides
- Non-organic meat, eggs and dairy products
- Hormonal drugs, and most pharmaceuticals
- Low protein diets
- Artificial sweeteners like aspartame
- Heavy metals (from large fish, copper from IUD, dental work, vaccines, etc)
- Foods fortified with iron, niacin, and folic acid
Tips for supporting healthy detoxification
It is important to deal with poor detoxification both by lessening the toxins we introduce into our body, and by improving the efficiency of our natural detoxification processes. So now that you know what to avoid, let’s talk about all the easy things you can do and consume to make your liver very happy!
Water, water, and more water! Are you drinking enough? Drink good quality spring water, avoid city water that contains many dangerous chemicals. If your detoxification pathways are sluggish, you need more water. Your kidneys need to assist the liver in releasing all these toxins into your urine. Please note that drinking room temperature, or warm water, is ideal – cold water impairs proper digestion. Also avoid drinking water while you are eating.
Drink water first thing in the morning. Drink a big tall glass of room temperature water, ideally with some fresh lemon or apple cider vinegar in it. This helps gently kickstart your digestion for the day. Wait at least 30 minutes before eating after drinking your water.
Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, kale, collards, cauliflower, broccoli, etc), are high in sulfur, which assists phase 2, and aids in excreting metals. They also contain compounds that are very beneficial to detoxification, such as indole-3-carbinol. Cooked vegetables in general are just so, so important, and should form the foundation of your diet. Each of your meals should contain several big servings of different vegetables.
Raw garlic, onions, and shallots, as well as eggs all contain sulfur, which is essential for phase 2.
Stabilize your blood sugar by eating a low glycemic diet, and making sure you eat enough! Eat protein (aim for 20% of total calories), good carbs and good fats together at every meal – don’t skimp! Eating too little can negatively impact your liver health, too.
Fiber is needed to transport the toxins out of the body once they are flushed out from the liver. Fiber is absolutely necessary to help keep estrogen at healthy levels. Flax seeds are one of my favorite sources of fiber for this purpose. Numerous studies have proven how beneficial they are in the prevention and treatment of estrogen-sensitive conditions, from estrogen dominance to breast cancer. Add a tablespoon of freshly ground flax meal to your food twice a day. Chia seeds are also another wonderful source of fiber.
Constipation is hugely problematic when it comes to detoxification. We don’t want those toxins to sit around in the digestive tract and get reabsorbed. Efficient elimination is of paramount importance. You should be having at least one easy bowel movement every day – well formed, but not hard. Water and fiber are very important for healthy bowel movements. If you have symptoms of sluggish detoxification pathways, you have to address digestion first!
Castor oil packs are a wonderful therapy to help stimulate the liver and help the detoxification process. A warm castor oil pack can be applied over the liver & gallbladder area to increase circulation, lymphatic drainage, and bile production. Click here for my article on castor oil packs!
Calcium bentonite clay has incredible healing properties, and is an invaluable tool to add to your detox protocol. Many different kinds of clay are eaten and used medicinally by both humans & animals throughout the globe. Bentonite clay (such as this brand, “Living Clay”)) is ideal to help natural detoxification. Make sure you use calcium bentonite, and not sodium bentonite. Click here to read more about how to consume bentonite clay.
Sweating is an important aspect of detoxification. It helps the lymphatic system stay active. Saunas are great for this. It should hopefully go without saying that physical activity and exercise are extremely important for supporting the body’s natural detoxification systems. Rebounding is also great for the lymphatic system.
Epsom salt baths (magnesium) can help the natural detoxification process. Take a bath with salts a few times a week.
Do not hold onto anger or resentment. These emotions are linked to the liver, and can harm us. Let go of that anger, find safe ways to release it.
Herbs that support the liver
Here are some of my favorite herbs that support the liver and detoxification. These are all very safe to use by just about any adult. All of these herbs have a bitter quality and is one aspect of why these herbs are so effective at improving our detoxification pathways. The bitter taste has an affinity for the liver, it improves digestion and increases bile flow. It is important to taste the herbs when you are taking them, the taste is part of the medicinal effect. This is one reason I don’t recommend capsules or pills for any of these herbs.
Always use organic herbs, or go harvest some wild herbs from a clean area. Burdock, yellow dock and dandelion are all very common, abundant plants that are fairly easy to identify in the wild. They are probably growing right in your backyard!
Burdock root – nutritious liver tonic. Helps control blood sugar levels, cleans and builds blood. Anti-cancer. Can be taken as a tincture, decoction, or eaten! Many health food stores will carry fresh burdock roots, I love adding them to stews and soups.
Dandelion root – my favorite bitter! Gently tonifies and stimulates the liver & gallbladder. Great taken before a meal to stimulate digestion and bile flow. Helps regulate hormonal function, as well as blood sugar levels. The whole plant is edible & medicinal, but the leaves are quite diuretic, so I prefer using the roots for this purpose. Drink in a decoction or take in a tincture. Spring roots can also be eaten, fall roots are a bit tough.
Yellow dock root – another wonderful bitter, I love combining it with dandelion root. Stimulates digestion and the release of bile. Antioxidant. Great for skin conditions. Mild laxative, can help clear constipation. Supports the absorption of iron and can help treat anemia. Best taken as a tincture.
Turmeric – slows down phase 1 and accelerates phase 2, which is really helpful, as explained above. A supreme anti-inflammatory, also anti-cancer. Take in a tincture or extract. You can also add the powder to food and drinks daily.
Milk thistle seed – supports phase 1, scavenges free radicals, protects the liver from toxins and damage. Also helps regenerate the liver. Seeds can be ground in a mortar & pestel and eaten, or you can consume them as a tincture or extract.
Schizandra berries – supports phase 1, without being overly stimulating. Powerful adaptogen, reduces stress mechanisms, stabilizes liver enzymes. Antioxidant. Take as an extract, tincture or tea.