Detoxification – the process of eliminating toxic waste – occurs through various bodily channels i.e. via liver, kidney, lungs and skin – but can also connote cleansing of the mind and emotions of any non-serving attitudes and behaviors.
Any healing regimen whether it be popping an aspirin, treating resistant gut bacteria or undergoing invasive chemotherapy all involve complex detoxification processes in the liver, so taking care of this vital organ is paramount to restoring health.
So, let’s start there.
Liver – mighty metabolizer
With a name stemming from Old English for ‘life’ your liver is the master organ of metabolism and as such is a key regulator of your health and weight. Modern diets and environmental toxins put a huge and cumulative strain on this mighty metabolizer, so it stands to reason that a regular tune-up is an important component of any healing program to avoid succumbing to systemic and liver-specific diseases and dysfunction. In fact, cleaning up the liver can represent a gateway to a higher level of health.
The disease connection
- Detox of environmental toxins (e.g. drugs, alcohol, chemicals, heavy metals) and internal waste products (e.g. used hormones, neurotransmitters, gut bacteria emissions, virus remnants)
- Energy regulation – on-demand processing , storage or export of macronutrients (carbs, fats and proteins)
- Vitamin and mineral storage – vitamins B12, fat-soluble A, D, E and K and minerals iron and copper. These micronutrients can be shipped to other organs as needed.
- Production of hormones, cholesterol and bile for vital daily bodily functions
- Vitamin D activation – a critical nutrient for immune system –modulation and inflammation-driven disease processes e.g. heart disease and depression
With so many vital roles, increased detoxification requirements can overwhelm or significantly impair the functioning of other metabolic activities which overtime may lead to chronic disease.
Fructose – a special situation
Fructose abundant in refined foods and soft drinks is metabolized differently to glucose – the major source of energy production in the body.
Fructose found in fruit is packaged with fiber which slows the digestion and absorption in the gastro-intestinal tract. As part of a fruit juice or sweetened beverage however, fructose goes directly to the liver where it enters through a unique receptor and bypasses the key regulatory mechanism utilized by glucose.1
Dietary fructose can reach 30% of total calorie consumption for some people. Just two 12 oz soda drinks contain around 60 grams of fructose enough to raise blood pressure in healthy young adults. 2
When the body is well-nourished with food excessive fructose consumption is ultimately converted to fat (as triglycerides) and sent off to storage in various body locations.
Excess sugar in the liver turns to fat that gets distributed to and stored in various body tissues.
If the liver is dysfunctional for any reason the extra fat may cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease – a debilitating condition affecting nearly 20% of US adults. 3
Signs and symptoms of liver disease
Since the liver controls distribution of fluids and nourishment throughout the body any impairment in function can lead to stagnation and the following:
- Physical symptoms include yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice); abdominal pain and bloating; swelling of the legs and ankles; itchy skin; dark urine or stools; chronic fatigue; nausea, vomiting and a lack of appetite; tendency to bruise easily; inflammation to eyes and vision problems; musculoskeletal problems from dry connective tissues
- Emotional signs include anger and aggression, depression and related disorders, frustration, impatience and irritability, digestive distress.4
The actual mechanism of detoxification involves an elaborate one or two-step process by which toxins are rendered safe for excretion. This process is highly susceptible to a myriad of genetic variations – found to different degrees in all of us – and accounts for why some people are better able to metabolize coffee for instance or respond differently to various drugs. Some of these variations can cause less obvious but potentially harmful responses to food or environmental toxins such as artificial dyes, inhaled smoke or eating charbroiled meats, which over time can accumulate in tissues and increase susceptibility to various cancers.
Fortunately, there are dietary interventions that can mitigate these harmful effects and greatly aid the detoxification process.
The first step is to turn off the fire hose and remove any toxic or inflammatory substances that put undue burden on the detoxification process:
- Remove inflammatory foods including those made with refined flours, added sugars or processed and ‘junk’ foods.
- Eliminate or substitute healthier options for coffee, alcohol, fruit juice and soda
- Take regular breaks from greasy, fried foods or substitute with smaller amounts of healthy fats (grass-fed meats, pastured dairy, raw nuts, seeds and avocados).
- Minimize any unnecessary consumption of over-the counter medications unless prescribed for a medical condition. There are numerous home remedies that work equally as well without the toxic side-effects.
Next, rebuild the liver’s vital reserve by consuming healthy nutrients:
- More fiber especially apples, non-gluten grains, beets, carrots, ground flaxseed or psyllium husks to facilitate excretion of toxic foods from the gastro-intestinal tract.4
- Detoxifying phytonutrient-containing bitter greens such as arugula, spinach, kale, dandelion and mustard greens which stimulate the flow of bile necessary for emulsifying dietary fats.4
- Sour foods such as berries, lemons and limes, apples, tomatoes and olives which help to break down excess fats and proteins.4
- Garlic containing allicin and selenium along with cruciferous vegetables cabbage and broccoli can both activate liver enzymes and power-up the cleansing process.
- Beets –not only rich in fiber -contain a compound that can increase the expression of detoxification genes.5
- Sulfur-rich foods also help make detoxification enzymes – garlic, onions, leeks and eggs
- Raw honey and apple-cider vinegar provide the liver with detoxifying nutrients.4
- Spirulina and other chlorphyll-rich foods or walnuts, chia seeds and evening primrose oil are all sources of liver-enhancing essential fats from omega 3 or gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).
Finally, hydration is critical.
- Consume 8-10 glasses of pure, preferably mineralized water throughout the day to keep cells hydrated and support the highly active cell membranes. The addition of a lemon, lime or cucumber will aid in detoxification.
Increase intake of antioxidants in food or through supplements – vitamins A, C and E, alpha-lipoic acid, selenium and Co-Q10.
Note these supplements work well as part of a detox protocol but should not be considered long term support.
Castor oil packs – applied to liver and covered in a wool cloth and heating pad. Helps to loosen stool and assist with constipation. Note this treatment is not advised during menses or certain other medical conditions. Consult with your health care team if you have any existing medical condition.
If the liver is stagnating as it toils to detox its heavy load, then it makes sense to aid circulation by engaging in regular exercise and avoid long periods of sitting in one position.
According to Chinese medicine the liver is most active during the hours of 1- 3 AM so avoiding late night eating and getting 8 hours of quality sleep between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM is best for optimal liver function.
Deep breathing engages the diaphragm which serves to massage the liver – a health benefit so often lost if you are stressed and more prone to shallow breathing which only utilizes the top part of your lungs.
Acupuncture – different points on the body connect to different organs helping them to function better and providing emotional support too.
There is tremendous clinical evidence to support how cleansing of toxic emotions and thoughts can radically impact the trajectory of your health journey. Chronic stress too can wreck havoc on your health. Try integrating regular yoga, meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction, neuro-lingusitic programming (NLP) or positive thinking practices into your daily routine. Whatever works best for you.
1. Johnson RJ et al. The Effect of Fructose on Renal Biology and Disease. JASN . 2010; 21(12): 2036-2039
2. Spruss A, Bergheim I. Dietary fructose and intestinal barrier: potential risk factor in the pathogenesis of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. J Nutr Biochem. 2009; 20: 657-662
3. Lazo M et al. Prevalence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in the United States: the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988-1994. Am J Epidemiol. 2013. 1;178(1):38-45. doi: 10.1093/aje/kws448
4. Pitchford P. Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition.3rd North Atlantic Books: Berkely, CA. 2002
5. Clifford T. The Potential Benefits of Red Beetroot Supplementation in Health and Disease. 2015; 7(4): 2801–2822. doi: 10.3390/nu7042801