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Supporting Your Body’s Detox Processes

The basics and beyond

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Supporting Your Body’s Detox Processes

Daily living exposes us and our environment to an increasing number of foreign chemicals and byproducts, often called xenobiotics. But our body is equipped with a complex system of detoxification processes that work to expel these foreign substances. Supporting this amazing system is key to good health.

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What are xenobiotics?

The term xenobiotics includes a number of substances that are foreign to animal biological systems, such as drugs, pesticides, cosmetics, flavourings, food additives, industrial chemicals, and environmental pollutants.

It’s been estimated that humans are exposed to between 1 and 3 million xenobiotics over a lifetime. Many xenobiotics have been linked to negative health effects, including hormone-disrupting effects (xenoestrogens), neurological and immunological effects (heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium), and carcinogenic effects (alcohol, tobacco, nitrates, pesticides, and heterocyclic aromatic amines from charred food).

In this context, detoxification refers to the safe biotransformation and elimination of such toxic substances, including foreign chemical exposures such as xenobiotics, as well as endogenously produced (from within the body) substances such as hormones.

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Detoxification phases

In addition to reducing potential exposures, detoxification involves enhancing the safe elimination of these products through the body’s internal systems of biotransformation. The detoxification pathway is divided into two main steps, phase I detoxification and phase II detoxification.

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Phase I detoxification

During this phase, toxins are activated through the addition of oxygen to highly reactive intermediaries by a group of enzymes known as the cytochrome P450 (CYP450) family. Phase I detoxification occurs primarily in the liver, but also in the digestive system, kidneys, lung, and brain.

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Phase II detoxification

Here the phase I reactive intermediaries are rendered water soluble, less reactive, and able to be eliminated from the body. Phase II enzymes conjugate the reactive intermediaries by adding molecules such as glucuronic acid, sulphate, glutathione, methyl groups, and amino acids. The resulting water-soluble products can be eliminated through the kidneys into urine or through the liver into bile, then eliminated in stool.

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Factors influencing detox

When our detox and biotransformation processes don’t function optimally, it may be due to genetic factors, environmental overload, and/or nutrient deficiencies. These can lead to various chronic diseases, including hormonal imbalances, cancer, asthma, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and neurodegenerative conditions.

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Genetic factors

Common genetic variants within genes involved in phase I and phase II detox that are either more or less efficient in carrying out transformation reactions can, for example, alter sensitivity to medications, which can either render them less effective or cause toxicity.

Medications such as painkillers could be rendered ineffective by a genetic variant that causes a particular enzyme to rapidly eliminate the medication, while a different variant that slows the enzyme could impede drug metabolism, allowing excessive accumulation within the body.

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Environmental overload

Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) is an enzyme involved in phase II conjugation reactions to clear hormones such as estrogen, dopamine, the stress hormone epinephrine, and norepinephrine.

According to research reported in the journal Nutrients in 2022, individuals with a particular genetic variant to the COMT enzyme (the A-allele) have 40 percent reduced enzyme activity, which may magnify the effects of stress-related hormones and xenoestrogens—synthetic industrial chemicals used as solvents or lubricants and their byproducts such as plastics (bisphenol A/BPA), plasticizers (phthalates), flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers/PBDEs), pesticides (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane/DDT), and pharmaceutical agents (diethylstilbestrol/DES) that may contribute to the development and progression of cancers.

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Nutrient effects

In general, phase I enzymes respond to the presence of increased substrates. If we drink more alcohol or consume more nicotine, for example, our body will produce more of the particular CYP enzymes that metabolize these. Of course, increased phase 1 activity requires greater phase II activity to mop up the resulting highly reactive intermediaries.

A healthy diet, of course, influences beneficial effects on our body’s detoxification functions. A whole foods diet that includes a rich variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins contains many phytonutrients and amino acids that enhance phase II enzyme activity. Research continues to uncover the complexities of specific food-derived components to the complex processes of biotransformation.

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Genetic test panels

There are a number of genetic test panels that can be analyzed by naturopathic doctors to help you understand your particular genetics as they relate to your body’s biotransformation processes.

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Detox programs

Fad detox programs beyond count have been popularized over the years. Unfortunately, many of these are unlikely to achieve long-term benefits. Given the pervasive ongoing nature of xenobiotic exposure in our world, a more consistent, comprehensive, and sustainable approach to detoxification is best.

There’s a long tradition of spring cleanses or fasting periods in many cultures. This speaks to the wisdom of enforcing periods of time dedicated to cleaning up one’s diet and lifestyle. Additionally, it may be necessary at times to adopt ongoing changes to sustain long-term health improvement, particularly when it comes to nutritional strategies.

For someone very interested in understanding one’s own detoxification processes and specific supports, getting professional input on analysis of genetics testing would be ideal.

According to Dr. Philip Rouchotas, ND, in general, components of a successful detox program should include the following elements.

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Clean diet

Eliminate highly processed foods, sugars, alcohol, and excess caffeine; emphasize green vegetables and sufficient water intake. Check for food intolerances.

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Regular bowel function

There’s no sense in increasing effectiveness of phase I and II detoxification processes if eliminated toxins are clogged up and reabsorbed. Diet and supplements such as probiotics, bitter herbs, or magnesium can help with this.

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Exercise

Regular physical activity promotes mobilization of stored toxins from fat and the lymphatic system (a circulatory system made up of lymph vessels that includes the tonsils, spleen, lymph nodes, and lymph vessels).

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Natural health products

Check with your health care practitioner for products shown to promote phase II detoxification that can be targeted based on symptoms, such as cofactors for estrogen elimination if hormone imbalance is prominent.

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Efficient elimination is key

Healthy bowel function is essential for efficient elimination of toxins from the body following phase II detoxification.

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Natural detox support

Some commonly utilized natural health products include the following.

Sulphoraphane 

An isothiocyanate isolated from cruciferous vegetables, sulphoraphane has been shown as a strong inducer of phase II enzyme systems including quinone reductase, glutathione S-transferase, and UDP-glucuronosyl transferase.

Green tea 

Containing potent antioxidants called catechins, green tea has been shown to protect against the carcinogenic effects of pesticides and other xenobiotics. Research indicates that consumption of green tea may have a positive effect on breast cancer prevention.

Indole-3-carbinol (I3C) 

I3C is a component of cruciferous vegetables such as kale and cauliflower and has been shown to induce phase I and II detoxification enzymes. In particular, I3C’s effects on biotransformation processes may have a positive effect on estrogen-related cancers.

Curcumin 

Best known for its anti-inflammatory effects, curcumin also seems to be responsible for upregulation of detoxifying gene expression in oxidative-associated liver diseases such as alcoholic liver disease, liver fibrosis and cirrhosis, and hepatic injury.

N-acetylcysteine (NAC)

NAC, a precursor for the synthesis of glutathione, one of the most important phase II enzymes, has been associated with a number of metabolic and hormone associated benefits.

Consult a licensed naturopathic doctor to find out which program might be best for you.

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Foods upregulating glutathione

Years of research indicate an association between low glutathione levels and many disorders, including chronic liver and neurogenerative diseases, hypertension, diabetes, and infertility. The following foods and nutrients positively affect glutathione:

·         cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage)

·         Allium species (garlic, onion)

·         resveratrol (grapes, red wine)

·         omega-3 fatty acids

·         curcumin

·         green tea

·         asparagus

·         spinach

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What is methylation?

Methylation is an important type of detoxification reaction, for instance, in breaking down estrogen. Methyl donors include folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and choline.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2024 issue of alive magazine.

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