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Detoxification and Body Cleansing

Detoxification is the body's way of changing toxic compounds into less harmful substances and then removing them via the urine, faeces, sweat, or breath. Toxins are also dumped in fat cells, where they can remain for years. The liver is the main organ involved in detoxification, however all tissues detoxify harmful compounds to some extent. This article looks at why it is important to support detoxification and sensible ways to do that.

What needs detoxifying?
The average person is exposed to numerous toxic substances on a daily basis, from food, air, water, or drugs. Many harmful substances are also produced internally from normal metabolism (chemical processes within cells), such as excess hormones, free radicals and inflammatory compounds. Microbes, such as pathogenic bacteria, produce toxins in the gut which increase the body's toxic load once absorbed.

Why is optimal detoxification so important?
Toxins interfere with normal metabolic functions (including energy production). They deplete important nutrients, cause imbalances in neurotransmitters and hormones as well as trigger the production of inflammatory chemicals and free radicals. When toxic load outweighs the bodies capacity to detoxify then biochemical imbalance sets in. This is thought to contribute to chronic conditions and disease.

How does the body detoxify these harmful compounds?
The liver is the primary organ of detoxification of drugs, pollutants, hormones, inflammatory compounds etc. These compounds are transformed in the liver through an intricate series of chemical interactions that occur in two phases. Phase 1 begins this process of detoxification but in doing so produces chemical intermediates and free radicals that are often even more toxic. Phase 2 renders these chemical intermediates less harmful and they are then excreted. If the functioning of phase 1 and phase 2 are not balanced then toxic build up can occur. Such imbalances are often affected by drugs, foods and genetics.

Detox and cleansing programmes
Individuals who feel very 'toxic' or who have a chronic disease or eating disorder should consult with a health practitioner before embarking on a detoxification program. Many popular fad “cleanses” are too extreme and leave individuals feeling worse. Severe calorie restricted diets could cause the release of toxins as fat cells break down. A good detoxification programme supplies the body with adequate nutrients and energy needed to support the body as it the safely removes these harmful compounds. 
Supplements can be taken, such as milk thistle or globe artichoke to support liver function. A good quality antioxidant complex and multivitamin & mineral complex can also be taken. If you are on medication always consult your health practitioner before taking supplements. A detoxification program is generally completed once or twice a year. After the first few days one should begin to feel lighter, clearer, and more energetic.

Sensible ways to support detoxification:

1) Minimise your exposure to toxins. Swap household detergents and personal cosmetics for environmentally friendly products. Avoid foods you know you are sensitive to e.g. wheat and dairy. Avoid alcohol, refined or processed foods including sugars and trans fats, known food allergens, and stop smoking. Broad spectrum antimicrobial herbal formulas can be taken according to manufacturers guidelines in the event of overgrowth of bacteria, yeast, parasites, etc.

2) Ensure you are getting all the nutrients needed to support liver detoxification, and to support antioxidant demands. Include an array of colourful fruit and vegetables, whole-grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and avocado into your diet. These provide vitamins, minerals and antioxidants needed for both phases of liver detoxification and to reduce free radical damage. Aim to eat some of the following foods daily because they are particularly supportive for phase 2 detoxification:

  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower)
  • Allium vegetables (garlic, onions, leeks)
  • Eggs, lecithin, beets, broccoli, spinach, and whey
  • Turmeric
  • Many detoxification programmes focus on vegetarian options, in which case it is important that you still get ample protein from nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and whole-grains. Good quality proteins, such as eggs and whey, provide the amino acids (building blocks of protein) needed for both phases of liver detoxification

3) Burnt/ barbecued/smoked foods, cigarette smoke, and many medications can cause an imbalance in the two phases of detoxification and so should be avoided (this does not apply to prescribed medications).

4) Support intestinal health
The gastrointestinal tract is a one cell thick barrier between the world outside and the environment inside your body. If this barrier is compromised, microbes and partially undigested foods can enter circulation and increase the toxic load on the liver. Including fibre (from whole unrefined foods) to aid the elimination of waste from the bowel. Soluble fibre, e.g. from linseeds (ground up), promotes the growth of 'good' gut flora, which aids the removal of detoxified compounds. Avoiding foods/drinks you know upset your gut.

5) Hydrate with ample clean (i.e. filtered) water or herbal teas
Fluid is needed to dilute toxins and flush them from the system. Herbal teas are rich in antioxidants. Green tea is a great source of antioxidants and it supports phase 2 detoxification.

7) Exercise regularly
Moderate aerobic exercise supports circulation and promotes bowel movements, which helps eliminate waste. The key is not to over do it, because physical over exertion is associated with free radical production.

6) Introduce changes slowly and phase programme out slowly
Detoxification programmes typically last 1 week to a few months, and throughout this period changes need to be introduced slowly. One can experience headaches, lethargy or nausea when removing foods like caffeine, alcohol, and sugars, upon which their body has become dependant.

8) Adhere to healthy dietary and lifestyle principles throughout your lifetime so as to prevent toxic build-up
Prevention is always better than cure. After completing a detoxification programme, keep your dietary habits clean, based on whole unrefined foods, and avoid excessive caffeine, alcohol, and other known toxins.

About the Author: Monica Codevilla Dip. Reflex. Meridian Th. is a health consultant with over 14 years experience in her field. She is currently completing a BSc in Nutritional Therapy (CNELM).

References:
1) Liska, D.J. (2002). The Role of Detoxification in the Prevention of Chronic Degenerative Diseases. Applied
Nutritional Science Reports, Rev. 8/05, 1:6
2) Jones D (2006) Textbook of Functional Medicine: Institute of Functional Medicine
3) Holding, R. (2001) Detoxification - between the devil and the deep blue sea. The Nutr Prac. 3(2):36-39
4) Liska D.J. (1998) The Detoxification Enzyme Systems. Altern Med Rev. 3(3):187-198
5) McClenaghan, J. (2001) Liver Health. The Nutr Pract. 3(2): 32-34