The Detox Myth

  • Do you have food sensitivities?
  • Or struggle with caffeine?
  • Or are you bothered with air pollution?
  • Or do you experience brain fog?
  • Do you have known or suspected hormonal problems (specifically with estrogen or thyroid?)
  • Do you often wake-up feeling as though you’ve been drugged?
  • Or ever experience tingling in your hands or feet, or weird muscle pains?
  • Are you worried that your body might be a little on the toxic side?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then it’s time to talk about detoxification.

If you spend any amount of time perusing the online health circuit, you’ll very quickly find that you may be in need of a “detox.”

Why? Well as it is often explained, your body gets toxic, and your liver in particular is your bodies filter, and when you have too many toxic inputs, your liver gets clogged up. The solution? A detox!  

However, I have also come across several articles in the last few years that basically will tell you that detoxification is a myth. Furthermore, the general indication from these sources is that basically people who tell you that you need a detox, should go straight to the quack watch list.

So, a reasonable question might be, is detox a myth?

But the answer is a little bit more confusing. The truth is both a little bit of yes, and a little bit of no. But really the primary problem here isn’t that your liver doesn’t deal with detoxification, but rather the problem is how that process is being communicated.

So let’s get rid of some myths. For starters, your liver is really not a filter. And using a word like “detox” has often given the impression that your liver is some kind of an internal water filter. It presents this kind of image of your blood going through your “filter” and all the toxins getting caught there until you come along and “clean” your filter. And this just isn’t how your liver works.  

Honestly, when we talk about it like that, I get the critique that says ‘detox is a myth.’ The way it’s often discussed provides some legitimate opportunities for criticism from more conventionally trained scientist. Your liver is not a detoxification machine that “filters out toxins” … but it does do detoxification, and I think it’s high time we get a little more sophisticated in how we discuss our liver, because this process is incredibly important to your health.

But also, it’s important to understand your liver because its function can be supported with nutrition and other lifestyle factors. Therefore, the more you understand about how that process works, the better you will be able to support this part of your health.

While detox or detoxification aren’t necessarily wrong words, they do fail to really capture what your liver is doing. In the medical world detoxification is often only a word used to reference what happens with an overdose from a chemical or drug… but it’s certainly not something you do to support your health.

This is why the word I prefer to use is the word Biotransformation.  

While Biotransformation may be a longer, less user-friendly word, it does provide a better idea of what your body, and specifically what your liver, is doing.

The liver is your bodies largest internal organ, and performs several hundred known task that are crucial to your health. These include things having to do with digestion, blood clotting, bile creation, hormone metabolism, and yes, processing chemical exposures, as well as drugs or pharmaceuticals. In short, you can live with part of a liver, but you’ll die without having a liver. Oh, and if you remove part of it? The remaining portion will regrow the lost portion in about a year. Yep. That’s right. Your liver can do regeneration. And no, there is no other part of your body that does this… just your liver.

And I’ll be honest –when something is so weird and cool that it sounds like it should be science fiction? I start paying attention.

So what about detoxification? Or Biotransformation? Why is this important? Well, when we’re talking about detoxification what we’re referring to is a process in which your liver takes biochemical material that your body cannot use (otherwise known as toxins), and it converts these into materials that your body can excrete in your urine or feces. It takes a biochemical substance (bio) and transforms it (transformation.) Hints Biotransformation, is a much more descriptive term.

So what are these “bio-toxins” your liver transforms?

Well, it could include chemicals that are manmade. In our highly manufactured environments, this is certainly an important issue. However, it’s hardly the entirety of what your liver is processing. It often also includes pharmaceuticals that your doctor prescribes, or things that you take over the counter (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.) While these substances are functional in small doses, if they remained in your body and built up, many of them would be poisons. But because of what your liver does, you process these substances in a matter of usually a few hours, and excrete them.

But beyond drug or chemical metabolism, your liver also metabolizes many natural agents that you ingest (certain plant materials that your body cannot use, or other substances, such as alcohol.)

Furthermore there is the often ignored fact that your liver also does substantial processing of materials that your body makes. For instance, hormones such as estrogen rely heavily on liver biotransformation.

So can your diet influence how this process works? YES. In fact this is a well-known reality of medication. If you’ve ever been prescribed a drug, and had your doctor or pharmacist tell you to lay off the grapefruit? This is what they’re referencing. Grapefruit is one such agent that can significantly accelerate certain aspects of your liver metabolism, altering the half-life of a medication (that is to say, the amount of time certain medications remains active in your body), which could either result in you excreting too much of the drug (without it adequately working) or it could also result in excessive quantities of the drug becoming stuck in limbo (so to speak) in your body, without the ability to transform it into your urine or feces, in an appropriate amount of time. The later of these options could even result in drug toxicity.

The process of biotransformation is somewhat hard to simplify, but if you break it down to the basics, you can roughly say that it takes place in two parts. These are often referred to as phase 1 and phase II, or sometimes as hepatic first pass and second pass. The first phase or pass can broadly be thought of as the process of oxidizing, hydrolyzing, or reducing a substance—this is accomplished primarily through the liver with a family of enzymes known as the cytochrome p450 enzymes. This is a family of enzymes, which means there’s multiple forms—not just a single type—and each of these can be genetically influenced, and many of them can be upregulated or downregulated, based on exposure. This is one reason why you might experience increased tolerance to a substance (such as caffeine) after you’ve been exposed to it over the long-term.  

Phase II of biotransformation, is known as conjugation. Just like you might conjugate a verb by taking the root part of the word and adding an ending to specify it’s meaning, biochemical conjugation takes a substance and adds something on, so the substance can then be excreted by your body. Again, there is not a single conjugation, but rather a collection of biochemical substrates your body may use.

As you maybe are realizing, detoxification is an infinitely more intricate process than a filter. But that doesn’t mean that caring for you liver has to be complicated. There are multiple things that you can do to assist your liver in the work it does. In future post I’ll try to address these in more detail, but here are some broad strokes.

  1. Remove your exposure to known chemicals in your environment. As mentioned many chemical compounds can upregulate the expression of your genes, and increase or decrease your body’s ability to handle toxins, and so if there are areas where you can reduce exposure, this is really helpful for your liver. Keep an eye out in particular for BPA, Parabens, Phthalates, Aluminum, Formaldehyde, and Perfluorinated chemicals.
    ProTip: you can look up your favorite brands in the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to determine the safety of your favorite toiletries and cosmetics.   
  2. Eat enough Fiber. Fiber is one of the main aides in helping your body to move substances out of your body in your feces, so getting adequate fiber is beneficial in liver support. Add 2 Tb. flax or chia seeds to your morning meal.
  3. Add cruciferous vegetables to your meals. Cruciferous vegetables ( such as broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower) help support conjugation pathways. Try including 1 to 2 servings of cruciferous vegetables a day—broccoli sprouts are my favorite! (If you have a known thyroid problem, limit this to 3 to 6 servings a week, and make sure to consume them cooked instead of raw.)   
  4. Get plenty of vitamin B-rich foods. You can take a quality B supplement, but one of the highest food sources is to consume 2 to 3 servings of beef or chicken liver every week. If you’re scared off by the taste of liver, I suggest trying a pastured beef liver capsule such as this one by Vital Proteins or this one by Ancestral Supplements. If you are a vegetarian, consider adding extra b vitamins with Nutritional Yeast, such as this one from Braggs.  

In a future post, I’ll cover some more specifics. If you are wanting to dig deeper in your nutrition journey, be sure to check out my nutrition consulting program. So many aspects of health benefit greatly with individualized support, and I’m passionate about empowering people to create a vibrant wellness story. If you want to learn more, you can read here!

Blessings on your wellness story!