Here are the ABCs (and Ds) of how to have a good clear-out- and why it's crucial for health
Type the word 'detox' into your favourite search engine and you'll get a cornucopia of too-good-to-be-true-sounding ways to purge your body of polluting nasties and put you on the road to better health. Take your pick from powders promising to 'cleanse' your system in 24 hours to foot patches claiming to draw toxins from the body while you sleep.
It's little wonder then that the same search will deploy an army of articles telling you that detox is "nonsense", "pointless" and nothing more than a "marketing myth". You don't need to detox, the detox debunkers say, because the entire rationale behind it-that toxic substances build up in the body-is false. Your body is perfectly capable of getting rid of any nasties on its own (the argument goes) and can't be helped by the likes of so-called detox diets, pills and programmes.
But forget everything you've read about detox so far.
WDDTY has done some digging and uncovered some surprising evidence in defence of detox. Far from being pointless and the stuff of myth, detox could be a valuable tool to help improve your health and prevent disease. Here's the what, the why and the how.
The word 'detox', short for 'detoxification', has taken on a number of different meanings, but basically it describes the process of removing toxins or toxicants-potentially harmful substances-from the body. It can refer to the body's in-built system of getting rid of these substances or to the various methods and therapies claiming to enhance the process.
According to detox sceptics, such as British quackbusting group Sense About Science, a part pharmaceutical-industry-sponsored organization, the former system is so effective that you simply don't need the latter. In a leaflet entitled Debunking Detox, they argue that the human body has evolved to get rid of unnecessary substances through the liver, kidneys and colon and, unless you've been poisoned or taken a dangerous dose of something, such as a drug overdose, you don't need to do anything to help it along. This natural detoxification system, they say, means that toxins don't build up in the body and so 'detox' in the therapeutic sense is essentially useless. The problem with claims such as this, is that while it's true the body is capable of detoxifying naturally (see Detoxification: it's chemistry featured below), the system doesn't always work properly.
Research shows that our individual detox systems are as unique as our fingerprints-and influenced by a variety of factors from our genes and our diets to our day jobs. While some people can efficiently expel any harmful substances that come their way, others can't, which can lead to their systems getting clogged up and slowing down. Ultimately, a clogged-up system could mean that the bad stuff the body is trying to get rid of can begin to have a negative impact in the form of physical symptoms and disease.
And this is the 'why' of detox: sometimes your body needs a helping hand.
A number of factors can affect your innate ability to detoxify, so detox as a therapy could have an important role to play in keeping or getting you healthy.
FACTOR 1: BODY BURDEN
Heavy exposure to chemicals in the environment-perhaps related to our jobs, hobbies or where we live-can place substantial stress on our natural detox systems, causing them to not work as they should.
As biochemist Dr DeAnn Liska explains in the journal Alternative Medicine Review, increased "toxic load", as she calls it, "may lead to inhibition of detoxification of a number of compounds by simply overwhelming the systems and competing for detoxification enzyme activities" (See Detoxification: it's chemistry featured below, for information on these enzymes).1
In other words, if the body is constantly bombarded with chemicals, its detox systems can become overwhelmed and stop working efficiently.
Some individuals may be more vulnerable to this than others. People who live near or work on farms, for example, may be exposed to high levels of pesticides, while hairdressers can breathe in all sorts of chemicals from hair dye and hairsprays. But all of us may have some sort of 'toxic load' buildup.
Man-made chemicals are now so widespread in the environment-some 100,000 are produced and used globally each year-that virtually all of us are walking around with a cocktail of synthetic chemicals in our blood, including those used to make non-stick pans, fire-resistant sofas, baby bottles, tin cans and even long-banned pesticides.2
Some of these chemicals have already been detected in human fat, supporting the idea that certain compounds collect or 'bioaccumulate' in the body. In 1982, the National Human Adipose Tissue Survey (NHATS) carried out by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found a total of 20 "toxic compounds" in 76 per cent or more of the fat samples tested. Five of these compounds-OCDD (a dioxin) and four solvents (styrene, 1,4-dichlorobenzene, xylene and ethylphenol)-were found in 100 per cent of the samples and at alarmingly high levels.3
Precisely what effects these chemicals are having on our health are not yet known, but growing evidence links our chemical body burden to a host of common health problems, including cancer, diabetes, infertility, obesity, Alzheimer's and heart disease.4
And it's not just environmental chemicals that contribute to our toxic load. The medications we take can also overwhelm our natural detox system and make it sluggish.
One study found that high intakes of common drugs, including the painkillers naproxen and mefenamic acid, can lead to problems in getting rid of two potentially harmful environmental pollutants, nonylphenol (used in detergents) and bisphenol A (found in plastics).5 Although this was a test-tube study using liver cells from rats and so may not apply to humans, it suggests that people on long-term medications-a substantial chunk of the population-may not be able to detoxify effectively.
FACTOR 2: GENES
Genomics-the new highly detailed study of genetics-has revealed that some people have genetic differences in their livers involving either the phase-I or phase-II detoxification pathways (see box, above), or both, that prevent them from properly clearing environmental chemicals from their bloodstreams.6
According to Dr Damien Downing, a clinician who has worked in the field of nutritional and environmental medicine for nearly 30 years, around 50 per cent of us carry a variation (a 'polymorphism') of a gene known as CYP1A2, which codes for one of the most important phase-I detoxifying enzymes in the liver. This gene can increase the activity of the enzyme, leading to the production of more cell-damaging free radicals than the body can handle. If at the same time there's a reduction in the enzyme glutathione S-transferase (GST), which is crucial for the final inactivation and removal of chemicals from the body during the second phase of detox, then we suffer even more stress on the body.
"Having a common polymorphism in one of the several genes for this latter enzyme will greatly reduce your ability to inactivate and remove a range of molecules-pesticides, toxic metals, petrochemicals, antibiotics, hormones, even alcohol," says Downing. "It is no great surprise that this will make you at least twice as likely to suffer allergic reactions-both to 'conventional' inhalants like pollen and to chemicals like second-hand tobacco smoke and exhaust fumes."
And if you have variations in both these enzymes-which, says Downing, a significant percentage of the population does-the impact may be even worse.
In fact, several studies are turning up links between impaired detoxification and certain conditions like cancer, Parkinson's disease, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.1In one study carried out in Taiwan, women who carried a variation of the CYP1A1 gene-involved in the metabolism of environmental carcinogens and oestrogen-were nearly twice as likely to have breast cancer.7
FACTOR 3: DIET
What you eat can also influence how your body handles chemicals. According to environmental medical practitioner Dr Walter Crinnion, too much or too little of something in your diet can have a dramatic effect on your detox systems.8
- Too little protein from, say, chicken, fish or eggs, can reduce several of the enzymes in the liver involved in the first phase of detoxification. The quality of the protein is also important. For people with heavy chemical exposures, Crinnion recommends partially hydrolyzed whey protein as it's been shown to increase the liver content of glutathione-an antioxidant required for one of the key phase-II detox processes.
- Too much sugar in the diet can also hamper detoxification. Studies show that eating a lot of carbs can reduce the body's ability to clear drugs from the system. In one trial, volunteers achieved greater chemical clearance with a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet compared with a low-protein, high-carbohydrate diet.
- A lack of vitamins and minerals can also affect natural detox. These include B vitamins (such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine and choline), vitamins C and E, magnesium and selenium.
If not everyone can efficiently detox naturally and most of us are awash in chemicals, it's likely that many of us can use some extra help.
Most of the studies into detox have focused on drug or alcohol detox, but there's some promising evidence that various natural agents and methods can help to clear potentially harmful chemicals from the body (see The ABCs of detox featured below).
A few studies even show that a detox regime can actually improve health. Most of these are based on a controversial programme developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Originally designed to aid the removal of recreationally abused drugs from the body, the method is now also used to reduce levels of environmental fat-stored compounds such as pesticides and industrial chemicals.
The programme uses high-dose niacin along with other vitamins, minerals and polyunsaturated oils together with physical exercise and extensive sweating induced by sauna baths. Although the method has been criticized (as has Scientology itself), it does have some evidence of working.
In a study of 9/11 World Trade Center rescue workers who'd developed a range of health symptoms after being exposed to multiple toxic chemicals, the Hubbard regimen significantly reduced their body burdens of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs) and polychlorinated dioxins (PCDDs). The authors reported that health symptoms "completely resolved" or were "satisfactorily improved" by the end of the programme.9
In another study, this time a controlled trial of electronics workers exposed to PCBs and other industrial chemicals, the Hubbard method led to significant PCB reductions in both blood and fat in around half the patients, and all of them reported improvements in the health symptoms they were suffering. The control group saw an increase in PCB levels and no improvements in health.10
Detox: the fingerprint principle
When you read the far-fetched claims made by some of the detox products on the market, it's easy to dismiss the whole concept of detox as nothing but a marketing myth. But while it's true that many of them have scanty or dubious evidence backing them up, it's wrong to assume that detox as a therapy has no value.
Everyone's innate detox systems are unique, just like our fingertips, and there's good evidence that our genes, lifestyles and even our diets could be preventing us from getting rid of potentially harmful substances properly.
We are only just beginning to understand the impact that impaired detox has on our health and to figure out who needs help in detoxing. But so far, it looks like detox may well be a valuable therapy or preventative for many of the chronic diseases that have stumped modern medicine.
Detoxification: it's chemistry
Detox is essentially a waste-disposal system the body has developed to rid itself of unwanted substances. This doesn't refer only to the environmental chemicals that are turning up in our tissues, but also to the compounds generated by food intolerances and even by normal bodily functions like digestion. Nearly every molecule the body handles has to be eliminated from the system once it has served its purpose.
As Dr Sidney Macdonald Baker explains in his book Detoxification and Healing (New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, 1997), the body does this via two crucial phases:
The waste chemicals need to become activated or, as Baker puts it, "made sticky" so they are then easy to gather up. A family of enzymes called 'cytochrome P450' is responsible for this phase, which Baker likens to what happens when you rub a balloon on your jumper. But such activation of these chemicals makes them more dangerous than they were to begin with, so this is where phase II comes in.
This is when a troop of 'carrier molecules' comes along to 'deactivate' the waste chemicals so that they can be safely transported away from the body. It's a bit like putting your household waste into bin bags so the dustmen can more easily and safely take it away in their rubbish trucks.
"When each activated toxic or leftover molecule is stuck to a carrier molecule," Baker says, "it becomes deactivated and more soluble in the water of your blood or bile so that it can leave your body via your kidneys or intestine."
The ABCs of detox
If you feel the need for a serious detox, you'll get the best results by visiting a qualified practitioner who can assess individual factors such as toxic load, food sensitivities and whether your digestive tract is functioning properly (see D below). In particular, those with a serious medical condition should not attempt to detox without supervision.
Here's a general guide to boosting your body's natural detox system.
A is for avoidance
Minimizing your exposure to toxic chemicals is a key part of any detox programme. Try to become a label detective and be on the lookout for more natural versions of any products you use in your home, garden or workplace. Switching to an organic diet may also help. The WDDTY e-book Safe Living is a useful resource. 11
B is for baths
Sauna baths, that is. They increase sweating and so encourage the elimination of all kinds of toxic chemicals-from heavy metals to pesticides and drugs.12
Health-club saunas and steamrooms can work, but detox expert Dr Shideh Pouria, medical director of the Burghwood Clinic in Surrey, UK, recommends far-infrared saunas, which emit infrared radiant heat that is absorbed directly into the human body. Around 3-5 minutes every other day should benefit most people, but make sure you drink enough water to replace lost fluids, and always follow the session with a shower.
C is for cruciferous
Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and watercress, all members of this family of vegetables, are rich sources of compounds that trigger phase-II detox enzymes and boost antioxidant activity. Maybe that's why eating these veggies appears to protect against cancer. 13 In studies of smokers, just eating 2 oz of watercress at each meal for three days significantly increased the detoxification of a cancer-causing substance in nicotine.14 Aim to include a mix of organic cruciferous vegetables (at least five servings) in your daily diet.
D is for diagnostics
If you're suffering from any symptoms, tests involving stool analyses and liver enzymes can help diagnose any problems with your body's detox systems. Experienced naturopathic and functional practitioners can also assess the overall efficiency of your body chemistry and its ability to handle waste. For testing services, contact Genova Diagnostics (UK tel: 020 8336 7750; US tel: 1 800 522 4762) or the Biolab Medical Unit (tel: 020 7636 5959). For practitioners, the Institute for Functional Medicine website may be a useful resource (www.functionalmedicine.org).
E is for exercise
Physical activity can help you detox and not just by making you sweat. Even a single session on an exercise bike can double your levels of detox enzymes.15 And just one month of a sustained aerobic exercise programme can lead to improved caffeine breakdown by the body.16
Aim to do 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise (the kind that leaves you slightly breathless) three to five times a week, followed by a shower to prevent your reabsorbing any excreted chemicals.
F is for fibre
As it binds to toxins and aids their removal, fibre is thought to benefit detox. Animal and test-tube studies show that dietary fibre like rice bran, seaweed and spinach can enhance the excretion of various environmental carcinogens,17 but do remember that this might not apply to us in real life.
G is for green tea
Liquid extracts of this type of tea-at amounts typically drunk by green-tea fans-can influence a crucial phase-II reaction in the liver, at least in animal studies.18 Although these results may not apply to humans, other research links green-tea consumption-usually about 3 cups a day-to reduced cancer risks in men and women. This may be partly due to green tea's ability to enhance the body's elimination of cancer-causing substances.19
H is for herbs and supplements
Milk thistle, vitamin C, selenium, alpha-lipoic acid and N-acetylcysteine (NAC) have all been shown to increase body levels of glutathione, which is essential for phase-II detox.8 Suggested dosages: 70-210 mg/day of milk thistle; 1-3 g of vitamin C; up to 200 mcg/day of selenium; up to 600 mg/day of alpha-lipoic acid; and 600 mg of NAC.
H is also for heavy metals, now so widespread in the environment that nearly everyone is contaminated with them to some degree. The following can help with their removal.
- Chlorella pyrenoidosa. The chlorophyll in this algae binds to and removes cadmium, lead and mercury. It also contains glutathione, a key component in your body's detox system.20 If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, Chlorella supplements might be able to reduce the transfer of harmful chemicals from you to your baby, according to preliminary evidence.21 As Chlorella itself can be contaminated with heavy metals, choose a quality product such as Prime ChlorellaTM, available from www.prime-chlorella.com (US) or www.theoptimumhealthclinic.com (UK).
- Spirulina, a blue-green type of microalgae, can help rid the body of heavy metals, especially lead.22 But again, be sure to choose a product from a reputable manufacturer.
- Coriander (Chinese parsley or cilantro). Researcher Dr Yoshiaki Omura found that patients with various viral and bacterial infections excreted more toxic metals after consuming a Vietnamese soup containing this herb. And when mercury patients took coriander tablets for a few weeks, their mercury deposits disappeared.23 Try eating 2 Tbsp daily of a coriander pesto sauce for around three weeks.
- Selenium can help counteract the effects of mercury, cadmium, thallium and silver exposures. 24
- HMDTM. Made up of homeopathic Chlorella and its growth factor plus coriander (Coriandrum sativum) leaf tincture (available from www.heavymetaldetox.net), this product was put to the test in a high-quality trial of 350 metal-foundry workers. Taking 40-60 drops three times a day cleared aluminium, antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel, thallium and uranium from the body-without removing any essential minerals at the same time. 25
Vol 23 no 10 January 2013
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