What is detoxification?

Detoxification is the way that our bodies heal and repair themselves. As chemical organisms, detoxification is the natural process by which our body removes toxins that can cause harm to our various systems. This is an ongoing process that occurs at a low level all the time, but the concept of “detoxifying” in the health and wellness world, usually pertains to when we actively give our bodies the chance to remove the toxins that are stored deep in the body. We can think of this kind of detox process as like spring-cleaning of the body, but we need to actively facilitate this kind of deeper detox. In this article we look at the basics of detoxification and why it is critical to prepare the body, starting with digestion, for any kind of detoxification program. Failure to do so can result in an untimely toxic release that can overload an unprepared body.

The body is always detoxifying…

In our modern world, we are constantly inundating the body with toxins, through the food we eat, the air we breathe and the stress we encounter. The concept of “detoxing” is not a modern phenomenon, in fact our ancient cultures have been engaging in detoxing practices for millennia.

Did you know: One of the most common detoxification methods throughout history is fasting, the best way to give the body the chance to stop focusing all its energy on digestion and to do a thorough “clean out.” When we get ill we often lose our appetites, which is the body’s way of telling us it needs a chance to do some clearing but unfortunately modern “wisdom” tells us we must eat when we’re sick to “keep our energy levels up.” Fasting has also been intrinsic part of civilisation and developed as part of religious and cultural rituals – perhaps there are some good ideas in there!

In our modern world when we actually do give our bodies the chance to “detox” properly we are providing our cells and organs with the chance to “spring clean” and get rid of any stored rubbish that they have been protecting us from while coping with the stressors of a busy life. Due to the inundation of toxins in our modern world, to facilitate a proper clean out a conscious and controlled approach is sometimes necessary. This varies from person to person as some people will have better functioning detoxification pathways than others, by virtue of things like a robust and efficient digestive system.

Detox – the wellness buzzword

We all know someone who has attempted a detox. While they are constantly overplayed on the front cover of women’s magazines as “the key to glowing skin” and “secret way of shredding kilos”, there’s actually real benefit in some of these methods. The benefits are the result of giving the body the chance to spend less time digesting and spend more time cleaning out the junk!

Common dietary detoxification approaches include elimination diets, juice or broth cleanses, calorie restriction and fasting.

These nutritional approaches can be supported and hastened through other detoxification methods such as colonic cleanses, inferred saunas, bathing in Epsom salts and dry brushing the skin. I will explore these at a later date.

So what are we detoxifying? Toxins of course, but what are those…

We hear this word all the time, but what does it actually mean? A toxin is any substance that has an irritating or harmful effect on the body.

Endotoxins are toxins that are generated by internal processes such as cellular waste, the side effect of a pharmaceutical or inflammatory food. Any substance in excess can also create toxic elements in the body, even water. This is why as a nutritional therapist I advocate balance as the key to a healthy diet.

Exotoxins are generated outside the body from air pollution, processed foods, pesticides, cleaning products and even the personal care products you use every single day. Next time you have a shower read the back of your shampoo, conditioner, body lotion and everything else and see how many names you can’t pronounce in the ingredients. This is a sure sign that they will be toxic to your body.

I will discuss how we can better reduce the toxic loads on our body in a separate article, but my rule these days is if I wouldn’t put it in my mouth it shouldn’t really go on my skin.

I will discuss how we can better reduce the toxic loads on our body in a separate article, but my rule these days is if I wouldn’t put it in my mouth it shouldn’t really go on my skin.

Transdermal = something is absorbed through the skin.

And absolutely anything can be!

Our skin is a highly absorbable organ, which is why things like topical magnesium are great. But it also means that all the chemicals in in our personal care, cleaning products and places like swimming pools do end up in the body as part of the accumulative toxic load. This is why in modern life we can’t just rush into a detox. What our body has stored might just be too much for it to cope with, which is why we must prepare.

Where are toxins stored?

In order to protect us our body stores toxins with the expectation that it will get the chance to remove them later during a period of less food when digestion is not the body’s primary job. This is why many toxins are stored in adipose/fat tissue. Periods of calorie restriction (fasting) used to be a chance for the body to stop digesting and processing energy, and focus on clearing out the rubbish. However, in our busy modern lives where we live in abundance more than any deprivation most people never have these periods of fasting where the body gets the chance to detox.

A new understanding of obesity is as a mechanism by which the body protects itself. Because adipose tissue is where we store many toxins people who are obese will have more stored toxicity that their bodies have kept away from other important organs. When weight loss does eventually occur this can prompt the release of many of these stored toxins and so digestion and other foundational systems should be addressed as a priority to support detoxification. But before we move onto how to prepare the body, let’s get our heads around how detoxification actually works.

How detoxification works: Phase I and Phase II detoxification pathways

There are two phases to detoxification, commonly referred to as phase I and phase II. To prevent an accumulation of toxins the body is constantly altering the their state by breaking them down and reconstructing in preparation for elimination and recycling. Phase I detoxification is when enzymes break down toxins into intermediate metabolites, which are often more toxic than the original. By this point some toxins are ready to be eliminated but most require neutralisation by the phase II pathways. However, for many people due to the high toxic loads of modern life, phase II pathways do not work as efficiently as they should and we end up with an accumulation of even more-toxic, phase II toxins. When phase II is working correctly, there are six different pathways involved in completing the breakdown of chemicals originating from in and outside the body. Phase II channels such as glutathione conjugation and sulphation break down the toxins generated by phase I and bind them to specific protein molecules that will then “escort” or carry them out of the, primarily via the digestive pathways in urine or faeces. Unfortunately due to our modern lifestyles and the vast amount of toxic loads on our bodies, many people have impaired Phase II detoxification, but Phase I still continues on efficiently. As Phase I pathways can make toxins even more toxic, when Phase II fails to eliminate them the toxic load on the body can build up significantly.

This makes detoxification systems in the body very important for maintaining health and elimination. We will delve deeper into this in Detox: part II

In this article we have covered the basics of digestion and the two key phases. In part II we look at why good digestive health is key to your body’s ability to adequately and safely detoxify.

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