Access to all articles, new health classes, discounts in our store, and more!
Have you ever considered a detoxification protocol? It’s important to know that not all methods of detoxification are equally safe and effective. Some popular health experts promote intense regimens designed to “encourage” detoxification at a highly accelerated rate. The goal is to swiftly rid the body of built-up toxins that may be detrimental to your health.
Extreme detoxification methods can themselves be harmful, however. The rapid release of stored toxins can overwhelm your body’s ability to excrete them, and freed toxins may be reabsorbed through the intestines into the bloodstream, resulting in a state of acute toxicity. Instead, the optimal way to boost the natural process of detoxification is to provide gradual support through the regular daily practice of healthy dietary and lifestyle habits.
Some cleansing diets utilize a strictly plant-based approach, eschewing meat and other animal-based foods. Yet, juice fasts and various other plant-based detox protocols aren’t as beneficial as you might believe, as they are deficient in a nutritional element essential for effective detoxification: high-quality protein. For complete detoxification to occur, a two-phase process must take place that requires amino acids from dietary protein.
The liver’s role in detoxification
By definition, detoxification is the process by which the body removes harmful or toxic substances that can contribute to disease or thwart healing and repair functions. The liver, our primary organ for detoxification, performs multiple essential functions to remove toxins from the body. It is responsible for purifying the blood by filtering out and neutralizing potentially harmful substances. It also produces bile, which not only aids in fat digestion and metabolism but also provides a means by which the end products of detoxification can be carried to the intestines.
Compounds broken down by the liver include pharmaceutical drugs, food additives, alcohol, pesticides, and other environmental toxins absorbed from food, air, soil, or water. Endogenous chemicals such as hormones, as well as metabolic waste from normal bodily functions, are also broken down by the liver and prepared for recycling or elimination. Its enzymatic activities convert fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble substances that can be eliminated through the urinary or digestive systems. This conversion process consists of two distinct phases.
Phase I of liver detoxification uses enzymes to begin breaking down toxins and making them more hydrophilic (water soluble). This phase also involves oxidation (the addition of an oxygen molecule) and other chemical processes. Some substances are fully neutralized in this phase and made ready for elimination from the body. For example, caffeine can be excreted via urination after Phase I detoxification. However, many toxic substances, such as benzene, are broken down into intermediate metabolites that may be even more harmful than the original toxins.
In Phase II, sulfur, amino acids, or other compounds are combined with these intermediate metabolites. This process, known as conjugation, decreases the reactivity of the remaining toxins and increases their water solubility. There are a number of pathways a toxin can take during Phase II detoxification, and each of these pathways relies on a sufficiency of amino acids. Without these necessary amino acids, Phase II detoxification cannot take place.
When ultra-toxic intermediate metabolites from Phase I are not neutralized during Phase II, those toxins can remain in the body and are capable of causing health challenges, including elevated levels of free radicals (the result of Phase I oxidation) and oxidative damage to tissues and organs.
Note that glutathione – composed of the amino acids cysteine, glycine, and glutamate – plays a key role in Phase II detoxification. Glutathione serves as one of the body’s most powerful antioxidants, increases water solubility of toxins, and binds with toxins to facilitate their excretion. Although glutathione is manufactured by the body, it can be depleted by a heavy toxic load. The synthesis of glutathione requires sulfur, so it is important that an adequate supply of this mineral – found in the amino acids methionine and cysteine – is present in the diet.
Once both phases of detoxification are complete, the conjugated toxins are ready to be removed from the body. Some will be transported to the kidneys for further filtration and then to the bladder for excretion in urine. Others will be deposited into bile – which flows into the digestive tract through the gallbladder – and then will be excreted in feces.
Detoxification and rapid weight loss
Any extreme reduction in dietary fat, calories, or protein results in the metabolization of a portion of the body’s fat stores in order to generate energy. Our fat cells store fat-soluble environmental pollutants, such as heavy metals and pesticides, sequestering them from the rest of the body. When drastic weight loss occurs, the stored toxins are released into the bloodstream from the shrinking fat cells, adding to the detoxification burden of the liver.
Some people report experiencing a euphoria or “high” during extreme detox protocols that promote rapid weight loss. However, for others, the symptoms of accelerated toxin release may include dizziness, headaches, palpitations, or nausea. Many people believe that such symptoms signify a Herxheimer reaction, or healing crisis, and thus indicate a proper detox. In reality, the feeling of illness or malaise simply shows that detoxification is occurring too quickly.
Rather than using a detox program that triggers a rapid release of toxins, it is far safer to bolster your body’s natural ability to detoxify with a traditional whole foods diet, complete with high-quality proteins. Not surprisingly, the nutrients needed to effectively detox are found naturally in such a diet. However, some foods and nutrients vital to the detoxification process deserve special attention.
Necessary nutrients and foods for liver detoxification
A variety of nutrients are required for Phase I liver detoxification. To ensure that this phase takes place efficiently, be sure to include the following in your diet:
Vitamin B Complex
B vitamins, including B2, B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6, B12, and folate are important for Phase I detox. High-quality animal products, including seafood and pasture-raised meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy are great sources of B vitamins. Organ meats, especially liver, are particularly high in B vitamins, especially B12. Whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds also contain B vitamins, as do fresh vegetables, but B12 can only be found in animal products.
Because of its significance in promoting healthy liver function, folate deserves special mention here. Although dietary liver is a particularly good source of folate, this vitamin is also found in many vegetables. Dark leafy greens, including spinach, kale, collard greens, bok choy, and parsley, are among those that are rich in folate, as are asparagus and Brussels sprouts.
This fat-soluble vitamin also plays a vital role in Phase I detox. While plant-derived beta-carotene is often referred to as “vitamin A,” the two are very different nutrients. In actuality, beta-carotene is a precursor that many people have difficulty converting into true vitamin A (known as retinol). True vitamin A needs no conversion in the body, so eating it is far more efficient. You’ll only find true vitamin A in animal products, including liver, egg yolks, cod liver oil, and full-fat dairy products.
Oftentimes, chocolate cravings may indicate a need for magnesium, which is required for Phase I detox. Magnesium-rich foods include green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds (best soaked), avocado, and cacao – the seed from which chocolate is made. One especially relaxing way to increase magnesium levels is to soak in an Epsom salt bath. Studies show that magnesium is easily absorbed through the skin – making Epsom salt baths a safe and effective way to address magnesium deficiencies.[1
Antioxidants neutralize the adverse effects of free radicals, thereby reducing damage from toxins, and help preserve the body’s store of glutathione. Specific antioxidants that are particularly important include:
Vitamin C: This vitamin is easy to find in fresh fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits, berries, and melons.
Vitamin E: A fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin E can be found in fatty plant foods, including avocado, nuts, and seeds.
Carotenoids: Fat-soluble pigments such as beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein are powerful antioxidants that can be found in orange, yellow, and red fruits and vegetables. Berries, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash are especially good sources.
Selenium: This mineral is an essential component of many antioxidant enzymes and is therefore needed for effective antioxidant activity. Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium, and it is also in meat, seafood, eggs, mushrooms, and sunflower seeds.
Zinc: Like selenium, zinc plays an important role in activating antioxidant activity in the body. It is found in seafood, including oysters, scallops, and shrimp, as well as beef and lamb. While animal foods tend to be better sources of zinc, it is also present in chickpeas and other legumes; nuts; and seeds, such as squash and pumpkin seeds.
Phase II Sulfur
Sulfur-rich foods support glutathione production and are particularly important in Phase II detoxification. Plant foods that contain sulfur include cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and kale; and alliums, such as garlic, onions, leeks, and shallots. Notably, three of the most important amino acids needed in Phase II – cysteine, methionine, and taurine – also contain sulfur. The best sources for cysteine and methionine include animal proteins from muscle and organ meats, bone broth, eggs, seafood, poultry, and dairy.
The following amino acids are among the most important for the various pathways of Phase II detoxification to function properly. All but one of these – taurine – can be sourced from high-quality proteins in the diet.
Glycine: In addition to promoting effective Phase II detox, glycine is an important nutrient for muscle growth, joint health, and the gastrointestinal tract. This amino acid is found in large quantities in the parts of animals that most people throw away, including tendons, ligaments, skin, cartilage, and bones. For this reason, bone broth, made by slowly simmering bones and connective tissues, is a great source of naturally occurring glycine. Gelatin is also an excellent source.
Glutamine: Like glycine, glutamine has numerous health benefits beyond promoting Phase II detoxification. It is also important for gastrointestinal health and recovery after exercise, and it improves cardiovascular risk factors in adults with diabetes. Animal sources include bone broth, beef, lamb, poultry, organ meats, and seafood. Plant-based sources include cabbage, spinach, parsley, lentils, and beans.
Cysteine: One of the few amino acids that contain sulfur, cysteine is used by the body to make glutathione. You can find it in most high-protein foods, including meats, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Some soy foods, such as roasted soybeans and freeze-dried tofu, are high in cysteine, but nonfermented soy products are best avoided for reasons including their phytoestrogenic and goitrogenic effects.
Methionine: Another sulfur-containing amino acid, methionine is critical for Phase II detoxification. It is also used by the body to create SAMe, or S-adenosylmethionine, which is important for brain neuron functioning and can be effective in relieving depression.[6,7] Methionine is found in animal proteins, including meats, eggs, dairy products, and seafood. Plant sources include Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, brown rice, chickpeas, and lentils.
Taurine: The third sulfur-containing amino acid in our list, taurine has an important role in the conjugation of bile acids. When bile acids are conjugated with taurine (or glycine), they are rendered less toxic and more free-flowing – which is essential for the final elimination of toxins from the body. Unlike other amino acids, taurine is not found in protein but exists in the intracellular fluids of animals. Although adults can synthesize it from methionine and cysteine, we sometimes need greater amounts than we can make. Taurine can be obtained dietarily from fish, seafood, and meat.
Foods that encourage bile flow
A properly functioning gallbladder and smoothly flowing bile are essential components of effective detoxification. You can support them both with the following whole foods and herbs:
Beets help keep bile thin so that it flows easily. In addition, many people notice a slight laxative effect when they eat beets; this promotes swift and efficient elimination of toxins from the digestive tract.
A lack of healthy fats (or the presence of unhealthy polyunsaturated oils, including corn, soybean, canola, or cottonseed oil) can hinder the functioning of the gallbladder. You can help keep your gallbladder functioning properly, and your body eliminating toxins swiftly, by eating a wide variety of healthy traditional fats – both animal fats, such as butter, ghee, lard, tallow, and chicken fat, and healthy plant oils, including olive, palm, and coconut oil.
Cholagogue is an herbalist’s term used to describe the bitter herbs or foods that support the gallbladder and liver by promoting the flow of bile. Bitter greens, including mustard and turnip greens, artichokes, and radishes, are examples of cholagogues in food form. Herbal cholagogues include milk thistle, aloe vera, ginger, dandelion root, and turmeric.
Traditional whole foods diets
One of the easiest ways to reduce your toxic load is to cut your consumption of dietary toxins. Eliminate processed foods and those containing genetically modified ingredients, and replace them with a traditional whole foods diet – real, unprocessed foods grown or raised without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers, using organic and sustainable practices. Traditionally fermented foods, such as lacto-fermented sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir, can assist your body in detoxifying potentially harmful chemicals. Beet kvass is an excellent fermented beverage to support both digestion and detoxification.
Instead of following radical detoxification programs that call for eliminating key nutrients, support your body’s natural detoxification processes by including high-quality protein in your diet. Make sure you are getting sufficient protein with each meal. By eating a wide variety of properly prepared whole foods, you will bolster your body’s ability to detoxify on its own.
About the Author
Raine Saunders is a content developer, activist, and educator on the topics of nutrition, sustainable food, and holistic health alternatives. She has taught classes on gut healing and preparing traditional healing food, and produced a wealth of content on food politics, health freedom, nutrition, and other health-related topics. She is the creator of the blogs Agriculture Society (now in archive) and Heal Your Gut With Food. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family.
Price-Pottenger members can read hundreds of additional articles on our website.
To become a member, click here.
- Waring, RH. Report on absorption of magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts) across the skin. Epsom Salt Council. http://www.epsomsaltcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/report_on_absorption_of_magnesium_sulfate.pdf. Accessed August 10, 2016.
- Tinggi U. Selenium: its role as antioxidant in human health. Environ Health Prev Med. 2008; 13(2):102-108.
- Prasad AS. Zinc as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent: its role in human health. Front Nutr. 2014; 1:14.
- Hoffman JR, Ratamess NA, Kang J, et al. Examination of the efficacy of acute L-alanyl-L-glutamine ingestion during hydration stress in endurance exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010; 7:8.
- Mansour A, Mohajeri-Tehrani MR, Qorbani M, et al. Effect of glutamine supplementation on cardiovascular risk factors in patients with type 2 diabetes. Nutrition. 2015; 31(1):119-126.
- Baldessarini RJ. Neuropharmacology of S-adenosyl-L-methionine. Am J Med. 1987; 83(5):95-103.
- Rosenbaum JF, Fava M, Falk WE et al. The antidepressant potential of oral S-adenosyl-l-methionine. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 1990; 81(5):432-436.
- Birdsall TC. Therapeutic applications of taurine. Altern Med Rev. 1998; 3(2):128-136.
Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Winter 2018 – 2019 | Volume 42, Number 4
Copyright © 2019 Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, Inc.®
All Rights Reserved Worldwide