The Myths & Realities of Detoxification
Opinions on "detoxification" vary widely in the medical community. On one hand, the stated position of most of the conventional world is that "liver cleanse" programs are worthless, often with a dismissive, "Don't you know that's what the liver is for?" The wide and relatively heterogenous world of alternative and holistic medicine almost universally agrees that detoxification programs are important, even essential, given the cesspool of chemicals that we are immersed in and ingest on a daily basis. Who is correct? Why is there so much dissension about this topic?
In my opinion, the major (and extremely valid) issue that the conventional community takes with detoxification programs is that they are almost always entirely supplement-based (often with extremely low quality products), sold by companies and people lacking in medical training, and tend to make absolutely outrageous claims about the impact detoxification has on health. Colloquially, even the word has taken on an amorphous, overblown meaning that is equated with rapid, significant weight loss, glowing, supermodel-esque skin, and radiant, perfect health. What is detoxification REALLY? What does this word even mean?
Detoxification is defined as "the process of removing toxic substances or qualities." For our purposes, this of course refers to removing harmful substances from bodily tissues. Now, mainstream medicine is absolutely correct: we conveniently possess an organ which performs this process of detoxification as one of its major and most important functions. To put this as simply as possible, toxins like xenobiotics (defined as a foreign chemical substances not naturally produced by the body) and endogenous toxins (normal physiological metabolites from energy production and by-products from bacterial metabolism) are processed by the liver in two phases. Phase I involves a family of enzymes called cytochrome p450 performing oxidation-reduction reactions (for the most part) on substances the body wishes to get rid of. This "biotransformation" of substances is the first step in the ultimate goal of the process: to take fat-soluble toxins and make them water-soluble so they can be excreted through urine and sweat. Phase II, or conjugation, involves attaching specific molecules to the toxin that was altered in Phase I so it can be excreted from the body.
Clearly, our bodies are designed to detox naturally, therefore, conventional medicine is correct in stating that there is no need for liver cleanses, detox diets, or supplementation, right? Well, maybe this is oversimplifying matters. While I absolutely agree that the phrase "liver cleanse" is a misnomer to the point of absurdity, I would argue that the function of the liver is on a continuum of health, rather than a dichotomy of "normal" vs "diseased."
What I mean by this is Naturopathic medicine views organ function in the context of the whole person. We would argue that an obese construction worker in a big city who eats McDonald's on a daily basis and smokes cigarettes potentially has a liver that isn't functioning at the same level as a young suburbanite who works in an office and eats a whole foods based diet. Of course, it's possible that due to genetic makeup, the construction worker has a liver that is able to keep up with the daily onslaught of toxic material and works just fine, however, it seems more logical to assume that despite the fact that his liver isn't technically "diseased," it may need a little support.
Think of your liver as an incredibly complex piece of biological machinery. A brand new piece of machinery tends to do its job extremely efficiently, has a manageable burden of work, and recovers from malfunction fairly quickly. In contrast, a 35 year old machine has some degree of wear and tear, a potentially increased or very high burden (depending on the person's lifestyle), and may take more time to recover from insults. It's true that the liver is an amazing organ capable of withstanding an incredible level of abuse and extraordinarily high workload. However, like most machines, it has the potential of working more efficiently with some degree of regular maintenance. This is where a Naturopathic "detoxification," or liver support program comes in.
At ANW, our Detoxification Program consists of 5 important elements:
1. Reducing systemic inflammation
2. Encouragement of adipocyte (fat cell) release of stored toxins
3. Hepatocyte (liver cell) support and repair
4. Provision of necessary vitamins, minerals, and co-factors to aid in Phase I & II of detoxification
5. Support of post-conjugation toxin elimination through urine and sweat
We meet these goals using
An anti-inflammatory diet with emphasis on foods that are supportive to liver health
Exercise & hydrotherapy to encourage release of toxins through sweat
Nutritional supplementation to provide required co-factors for detoxification
Botanicals to support hepatocyte function and repair
Antioxidant supplementation to quench free radicals produced in detoxification
Remember, the hallmarks of a good detoxification program are interventions that are based in scientific research and an approach that takes your individual physiological makeup into consideration, rather than a "one size fits all" model.
Stayed tuned for my next article about detoxification, "The Importance of Liver Function in Women's Health Conditions," by signing up for our newsletter or liking on Facebook!