The science and history behind detoxification

Are you planning a post-christmas detox and not sure where to look? Whether you are or not, come the first week of January a large majority of us in the UK will be typing the terms ‘detox’ or ‘diet’ into ‘google’ in the hope of finding inspiration online. But with search engines throwing back page after page of results it can be quite difficult to know where to look for a detox plan that actually works.

In today’s article we are going to look at the science and history behind a period of ‘detoxification’ with a view to helping you understand what is happening internally during this cleansing period, and what nutrients are essential to undergo a successful detox.

Why detox?

The idea of a ‘detox’ has been around for centuries and is a cleansing method that has been adopted by various cultures throughout history. The original premise of detoxification is based on the ancient Greek and Egyptian theories that much of the food we eat contains toxins that are harmful to the body and most ancient civilisations advocated a day of self-denial or fasting because of this.

Although a ritual that goes back centuries, supporting the body’s natural detoxification systems (ideally all year as well through our food choices) is arguably more important now than it has ever been. We exist in a toxic environment: pesticides sprayed on vegetables, phthalates in plastics and cosmetics, chlorine in household cleaners, PCB’s and heavy metals in farm-raised fish, and antibiotics and dioxins in commercially produced animal products are just a few examples of toxins that are in most people’s environment every day.

A study in the US showed the average woman puts around 168 chemicals onto her body every day in the form of cosmetic products. Even if we eat organic foods, avoid commercial cleaners, and are careful in our choice of skincare products, we cannot avoid the pollution in our environment and some toxins are increasing; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, releases of toxins on land rose by 19 percent from 2010 to 2011, primarily due to increases in land disposal at metal mines.

Supporting the functions of the liver, bowel, skin and circulation are key objectives of detoxification. So a healthy diet, high in fibre to support regular bowel movements, with liver supportive nutrients will support the detoxification and elimination of toxins from our body.

Liver Detoxification

Inside the liver cells there are mechanisms that have evolved over centuries to break down and neutralise toxic substances that enter our bodies – both ‘exogenous’ toxins (ie from the outside) such as drugs, pesticides and pollutants and ‘endogenous’ substances produced in the body such as hormones. All of these are metabolised by enzyme pathways inside the liver cells. These detoxification processes occur every day, not just when we are on a detoxification diet. Sometimes the body’s capacity to deal with toxins is exceeded and this results in toxins being stored away in fatty tissues in the body.

Toxins may be stored for years in fatty tissues before being released during times of exercise, stress or fasting. During the release of these toxins, symptoms such as headaches, poor memory, stomach pain, nausea, fatigue, dizziness and palpitations may occur. To avoid these symptoms it is preferable that your body is in a relatively nutritionally ‘replete’ state.

Starting a detox programme from a nutritionally depleted state, along with an inadequate intake of key nutrients during the detox can mean that your body is less able to support the detoxification process. Particular nutrients to be mindful of in this respect are minerals such as zinc, copper, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, B vitamins and the antioxidants vitamins C and E.

The liver has two pathways designed to convert fat-soluble chemicals into water soluble chemicals so that they may then be easily excreted from the body via watery fluids such as bile and urine: Phase I (oxidation, reduction and hydrolysis reactions) and Phase II (conjugation reactions).

Phase I

Phase I detoxification involves oxidation, reduction and hydrolysis. Phase I, which is catalysed by enzymes referred to as cytochrome P450 enzymes, converts harmful chemicals into (mostly) less harmful substances and in the case of fat soluble toxins makes them more water soluble allowing them to be much more efficiently excreted from the body via the bile (and bowel) or kidneys. This is achieved by various chemical reactions which also results in free radicals being produced. Antioxidants such as vitamins C, E and natural carotenoids are needed to reduce the damage caused by these free radicals.

In Phase I, some toxins are converted into more dangerous substances that are carcinogenic. Also excessive amounts of some toxic chemicals such as pesticides can disrupt the P450 enzyme system causing over-activity of this pathway and leading to high levels of damaging free radicals being produced.

Phase II

Intermediates from Phase I enter Phase II to complete the detoxification process. As mentioned, some of the Phase I intermediates are more dangerous than the initial toxin. For example, benzene, is a dangerous organic solvent that is present in gasoline and cigarettes. The enzymes in ‘phase 1’ oxidize benzene to produce benzene quinones , which are carcinogenic. To efficiently and safely complete the detoxification of benzene, the body requires ‘Phase II’.

In Phase II, oxidised chemicals are combined (or conjugated) with amino acids, sulphur or organic acids and then excreted in the bile.

This phase of the process is particularly affected by nutritional deficiencies and overload of toxic exposure.

The most important amino acids for Phase II detoxification are cysteine and methionine These two amino acids are the main dietary sources of sulphur, and are found in meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products.  Vegetarian sources of cysteine and methionine include nuts, seeds and beans.  The body’s requirement for cysteine and methionine fluctuates depending on the liver’s burden of toxic compounds.  The body’s stores of these amino acids are depleted in the process of detoxification, so the greater the toxic stress, the more the body demands. This is why it is important to include some (but not excessive) protein foods in a detoxification programme.

The Bowel

Once toxins have been ‘neutralised’ by the liver they may enter the bile and then the bowel to be eliminated in the faeces. If you are constipated some of these toxins will be reabsorbed and may have to go through the liver’s detoxification processes a second time. Regular (at least daily) bowel movements to ensure elimination are an essential part of a detoxification.

Warning on Detoxification Diets

The information in this blog includes suggestions as part of a detoxification programme. We would not consider it appropriate to carry out a detoxification during pregnancy or breastfeeding. However a detoxification as part of preconception planning can be beneficial for both the mum and dad-to-be.

If you have any pre-existing medical conditions or are taking medication, please consult your doctor first before embarking on a detoxification diet. You should not undertake a detoxification diet if you are unwell without supervision from a healthcare practitioner.

If you have any questions regarding the health topics that have been raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time., 01684 310099

Amanda Williams and the Cytoplan Editorial Team: Joseph Forsyth, Simon Holdcroft and Clare Daley

Last updated on 6th January 2020 by cytoffice


11 thoughts on “The science and history behind detoxification

  1. I think this is really interesting, it would be very helpful to include detailed information giving a step by step guide to a detox plan.

    1. Hi Sue,

      Many thanks for your comment. At the beginning of January we will be including a ‘part 2’ to this article where we provide a guide to a detox plan.

      All the best,

  2. Thankyou for this information, I suffer with the symptoms mentioned at the beginning so it makes sense for me to consider a detox, I already take a multi vit formula from you so I will order the extras, thanks again,

    1. Hi Jane,

      Of course, that is absolutely no problem. If you need any further assistance please do get in touch.

      All the best,

  3. Very interesting and informative look forward to more guidance in the New Year.
    Whch Multivitamin supplement would you recommend for someone in their 60’s.

    1. Hi Tony,

      The perfect multivitamin for someone in their 60’s would be a product called 50+. If you would like us to send you a pot in the post please do get in touch – we would be more than happy to do so.

      All the best,

  4. Great article, thank you!

    I recently had a baby and I am in my 40s. I already take one of your multivatitamins but I think I would really benefit from an easy to follow detox plan as I don’t have a lot of time at the moment but I desperately need a boost of energy… I hope part 2 of this article will help- can’t wait!

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