If you’ve ever embarked upon an intense detox protocol that left you feeling weak, irritable, and wondering why you chose to put yourself through this misery, you might not have had your nutritional basics in place!
Without sufficient key nutrients from foods, the body can’t fully recruit its own pathways of metabolic detoxification. When this happens, our detoxification organs—mainly the liver, kidneys, colon, and skin—can’t do their jobs to the best of their ability.
Compared with doing a three-week crash diet, regularly eating foods rich in nutrients that naturally activate detoxification pathways is far more effective for keeping the body’s toxic burden low and overall well-being high.
More commonly known as metabolic detoxification, biotransformation is the normal physiologic process of converting toxicants from the environment and from the body itself into compounds that can be safely mobilized and excreted from the body.
Biotransformation is accomplished through a number of metabolic detoxification pathways that take place in every tissue and organ, even the lungs and brain.
A properly functioning detoxification system maintains a proper balance of hormones, metabolizes pharmaceuticals, and processes harmful substances from the environment to ensure overall health and well-being. An accumulation of toxins is associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
The glymphatic system provides the brain and central nervous system with a deep cleaning of metabolic waste. Impaired glymphatic function has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Since the glymphatic system is most effective during sleep, consider prioritizing sleep as a key pillar for supporting full-body detoxification. Resist binging on your favorite show and instead cultivate a calming bedtime routine to make sure you clock enough hours.
Metabolic detoxification pathways
There are several families of detoxification enzymes, most of which perform these main functions of biotransformation:
Phase I involves the chemical modification of toxins into reactive intermediates, at which stage they actually become more harmful.
Phase II neutralizes these reactive intermediates and makes them water soluble so they may be safely excreted from the body.
Antioxidant support needs to be in place to protect the body from any damage caused by the reactive intermediates produced in phase I.
Nutrients for detoxification
Certain nutrients wield the power to increase the activity of detoxification enzymes and recruit corresponding metabolic detoxification pathways. Since our regular food choices affect the activity of detoxification pathways to assist with toxin biotransformation, they also affect the body’s sensitivity to toxic substances.
New research suggests that diets rich in phytonutrients (nutrients from plant-based foods) may offset toxicity from pollutants and reduce disease risks associated with environmental toxicity. Polyphenols are one type of phytonutrient and are particularly high in berries, cloves, cacao, nuts, and vegetables such as artichokes.
CYP1A detoxification enzymes
Part of the cytochrome P450 family of phase I detoxification enzymes, these enzymes play an important role in metabolizing procarcinogens, pharmaceuticals, and hormones. Lower CYP1A2 enzyme activity has been associated with a higher risk of testicular cancer.
Cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, have been shown to increase the activity of CYP1A1 and CYP1A2 enzymes. In doing so, this benefits estrogen metabolism. Resveratrol also enhances the activity of CYP1A1, and can be found in foods such as grapes, peanuts, and soy.
CYP2A detoxification enzymes
This family of enzymes is involved in the metabolism of pharmaceuticals, hormones, environmental toxicants, ketones, and fatty acids. Broccoli and foods rich in the bioflavonoid quercetin (spinach, apples, onions) have been shown to enhance the activity of CYP2A6. Early research suggests that rosemary and garlic may upregulate CYP2B activity.
This is the master antioxidant of the liver, which is involved in both phase I and phase II detoxification pathways. We need to constantly replenish glutathione by sourcing its nutritional precursors from the diet. Vitamin B6, the minerals selenium and magnesium, and the amino acid cysteine are key building blocks for producing glutathione.
For the richest sources of vitamin B6, opt for chickpeas, skipjack tuna, wild salmon, and chicken breast. Pumpkin seeds, almonds, legumes, and leafy greens provide ample magnesium. Cysteine is found in protein-rich animal meats such as pork chops, beef, and chicken breast.
Eating salmon twice per week has been shown to increase glutathione in pregnant women.
Causes of low glutathione
Chronic inflammation has been shown to contribute to oxidative stress and decrease glutathione stores. Those with inflammatory conditions should incorporate more foods rich in glutathione’s nutritional precursors to encourage glutathione production.
Impaired protein digestion and low stomach acid may also interfere with healthy glutathione levels. Seniors and those on medication for acid reflux are at a higher risk of these issues. If this is you, ask your health care practitioner for recommendations on supporting your digestion and absorption.
Depleted glutathione stores may improve through supplementation with curcumin, milk thistle, folic acid, alpha-lipoic acid, and liposomal glutathione.
The genetics of biotransformation
Genetic variations in detoxification enzymes alter one’s sensitivity to toxic substances and the functional capacity of detoxification. Variants in toxicant metabolism have been associated with increased risk of miscarriage, birth defects, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and toxicity of both benzene and mercury.
The good news is that once you have done your genetic testing, you can develop an individualized nutrition plan with a health care practitioner to fine-tune your detoxification pathways. In some cases, it might actually be helpful to reduce the activity of detoxification enzymes if your genetics show that it may be overactive and causing harm.
Luckily, there are foods for that, too! Berries can be helpful for reducing overactive CYP1A1, and foods rich in quercetin may reduce excessive CYP1A2.
Supplement Detox support n-acetylcysteine restores depleted glutathione probiotics may mitigate gut dysbiosis that occurs as a result of exposure to heavy metals, mycotoxins (mold), and persistent organic pollutants in the food system fiber adds to fecal bulk, which promotes bowel regularity spirulina may help alleviate heavy metal toxicity milk thistle promotes glutathione production and inhibits the free radicals produced from metabolizing alcohol and acetaminophen turmeric restores depleted glutathione ginger significantly increases activity of Nrf2, a key regulator of the body’s detoxification and antioxidant systems whey protein 45 g per day in healthy study participants increased glutathione by 24% after 14 days
Melatonin and detoxification
While melatonin is mostly known for regulating our circadian rhythm by making us sleepy at bedtime, this hormone is also an antioxidant and plays an important role in detoxification.
Melatonin increases the clearance of toxic proteins from the brain via the glymphatic system. Studies have shown that melatonin may prevent the neurodegeneration seen in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Unfortunately, melatonin production decreases with age. It may be helpful to supplement with melatonin in the event of age-related insomnia and throughout the latter half of life.