How to Support Your Body’s Natural Detoxification Systems

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Our bodies have built-in detoxification systems, primarily through the liver, but many foods and supplements can support this process.

Although our bodies are naturally equipped with built-in detoxification systems, there are plenty of ways we can support these organs to do their jobs better. From the polluted air we breathe, the cleaning products we use, the medications we take, the alcohol we consume, and the pesticides we eat, we are constantly exposed to various toxins in our day-to-day lives that need to be processed and eliminated.

If our natural detoxification systems aren't working as well as they should, the buildup of toxins can create an additional burden on the body due to chronic stress, illness, or environmental factors. This toxic load can manifest in various diseases, including smaller ailments like constipation, headaches, and fatigue

The 5 Ways Your Body Detoxifies 

1. Liver

The liver is the body’s primary source of detoxification. There are two phases of detoxifying that the liver uses to process and eliminate harmful compounds. 

The phase I detoxification pathway is the first line of defense against toxins that enter the body. This phase mainly uses a group of enzymes called the cytochrome P450 family. These enzymes convert fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble intermediary compounds through oxidation. 

Although this mechanism does begin the process of breaking down harmful toxins, it also introduces free radicals, which can cause oxidative damage. Increasing antioxidant intake, through food or supplements, is beneficial to protect the body from further damage. 

Phase II of the detoxification process involves taking those intermediary compounds and conjugating them to other compounds, which leads to their excretion through urine, bile, or stool. This phase requires amino acids, sulfur, and glutathione to complete, as well as some vitamins and minerals that can enhance this process and act as cofactors, including vitamins B6 and B12, selenium, molybdenum, folate, and magnesium.

Incompletion of either phase can lead to toxic compounds accumulating in the fatty tissues, brain, or nervous system. If the toxins are unable to be eliminated in the stool  — which some consider as the third phase of detoxification — they are reabsorbed and recirculated in the body. 

One of the key factors that regulate the detoxification and antioxidant pathways is the transcription factor, Nrf2, which can be activated by polyphenolic compounds, such as those found in ginger, resveratrol, turmeric, berries, and rosemary. Nrf2 is considered a master cellular switch that turns on genes to protect the body from oxidative damage. 

The liver is the body’s primary detoxification organ.

There are several foods and supplements that can help to support the detoxification pathways in the liver: 

  • Milk thistle is a bitter plant commonly used in herbal supplements that upregulates the detoxification pathways and can act as an antioxidant.
  • Glutathione, also known as the body’s master antioxidant, is a crucial component of the enzymes needed in phase II to conjugate to the intermediary compounds.
  • NAC (N-acetylcysteine) is the supplemental form of the amino acid cysteine. It is needed to make glutathione and can reduce the oxidative stress that is introduced in phase I by free radicals. 
  • Cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts contain sulforaphane and DIM (diindolylmethane), which induce Nrf2 and activate cytochrome P450 enzymes in phase I of detoxification. 
  • Coenzyme Q10 is an anti-inflammatory nutrient that can increase Nrf2 activation and act as an antioxidant. 
  • Artichoke leaf and turmeric both enhance glutathione production and reduce oxidative damage.
  • Dandelion root is a bitter yet nutritious weed that stimulates bile production and reduces inflammation.

2. Kidneys

The kidneys also play a role in detoxification, through their constant filtration of blood and removal of waste products in the urine. 

The best way to support your kidneys’ filtration system is through proper hydration. According to the Institute of Medicine, a daily intake of 2.7 liters and 3.7 liters of water for women and men, respectively, is recommended. 

Other foods or compounds that can benefit kidney function include resveratrol, cranberries, alpha-lipoic acid, NAC, and stinging nettle, which can be made into tea. 

3. Digestive System

Our intestines help with detoxification by eliminating toxins and waste through stool. A roadblock in this third phase of detoxification can be constipation, as irregularity leads to toxins being reabsorbed into the body. 

One of the most beneficial ways to ensure the digestive system is working properly to eliminate toxins is by increasing the consumption of dietary fiber, which upregulates the activity of the enzymes needed for detoxification. Intake of fibrous foods leads to the proliferation of healthy gastrointestinal microbes, which improves the functioning of the gut barrier lining and reduces inflammation, thereby protecting the liver from damage and oxidative stress. Fiber also binds to toxin-bound bile and removes it in the stool. 

Other compounds that can bind to toxins, specifically heavy metals, are cilantro and chlorella, an alga. 

If your digestive system is still moving sluggishly after increasing fiber intake, supplemental magnesium citrate works well to pull additional fluids into the bowels and support healthy elimination.

4. Skin 

Although the majority of the body’s detoxification goes through the liver and kidneys, the skin does provide a minor amount of toxin release through the sweat glands.

A 2012 systematic review published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health concluded that sweating was able to remove some heavy metals from the body. 

A small study found that bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor found primarily in plastic products, was detected in sweat, indicating that sweating could be a useful way to eliminate toxins from the body. Although, only about 1% of the body's toxins are likely released through the skin.

However, exercise is a helpful way to eliminate toxins from the body, albeit not through the sweat glands. Vigorous activity increases the flow and circulation of lymph fluid and blood throughout the body, which the kidneys can then filter the toxins and waste products into the urine.

Exercise helps to detoxify through activation of the lymphatic system.

5. Lungs

Lastly, the lungs are a lesser-known organ that is involved in detoxification. When toxins are airborne, the lungs filter them out, including mold spores, fumes, or pollutants from cleaning supplies. 

The lungs can easily be overloaded with toxins if you are a smoker, so quitting smoking of all kinds would be the first thing to do to help your lungs function better. 

An air purifier can work to remove household toxins by trapping up to 99% of the airborne pollutants that can circulate in your home. Consistent exposure, even to less harmful particles like dust and pet dander, can lead to breathing issues if exposed long term. 

Other Ways to Support Detoxification

Additional recommendations to reduce the overall toxic load that can burden your body’s detoxification organs include: 

  • Eliminate or reduce alcohol consumption.
  • Use “green” or non-toxic cleaning supplies and personal care products.
  • Exercise regularly to increase lymphatic flow and drainage.
  • Sleeping allows the recently-discovered glymphatic system to clear toxins out from the brain and central nervous system, suggests a study in the journal Neurochemical Research.
  • Consume organic fruits and vegetables that are listed on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List, which are the 12 fruits and vegetables that are most heavily contaminated with pesticides.

Key Takeaways

  • The body’s main detoxifying organ is the liver, which can be supported by reducing oxidative damage and upregulating the detoxification enzymes.
  • The liver can be supported with milk thistle, NAC, glutathione, cruciferous vegetables, coenzyme Q10, turmeric, artichoke leaf, and dandelion root.  
  • The other detoxification organs are the kidneys, digestive system, skin, and lungs. 
  • Reduce your body’s detoxification burden by reducing alcohol consumption, buying non-toxic cleaning and personal care products, exercising, sleeping, and eating organic foods when possible.
Show references

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Dirty Dozen™ Fruits and Vegetables with the Most Pesticides. EWG's 2020 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Environmental Working Group website. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php

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