Clarity on the Cleanse
The word detox is thrown around a lot in relation to clean living and eating but generally what meaning do we take from that? The implied meaning refers to weight loss, glowing skin, renewed energy, shiny eyes and a renewed joie-de-vivre. It seems to promise a new you, a new beginning and perhaps a new journey.
However out of reach this may appear, there is some truth in this promise. Traditionally a detox period comes with the change of the seasons. Cleansing has a rich tradition throughout all ages and cultures. It has been part of cultural rituals in some areas of the world for thousands of years. There is even biblical references referring to dietary restrictions, physical and aromatic cleansing. This is mirrored in diverse cultures across the world from Native Americans to Ancient Greece, Roman and even Norse times. There are some unifying concepts across the cultures that aim to stimulate the body’s natural detoxification pathways as well as ‘cleansing the soul’.
Throughout time and ages, equinox has been celebrated and marked with cleansing regimes and the ultimate cathartic clear out in our life. It is thought this is the best time to do this to welcome greater energies and spiritual freedom but there is also a more practical base to this way of thinking.
So the idea of detoxification, resounds with our deepest soul and patronage and is not surprising that we feel attuned to the idea of physical and soulful cleansing. However, as with most traditions, there is usually some scientific reasoning for these accrued ritualistic practices devised by human nature and here I attempt to demystify and bring clarity to the cleanse!
Detoxification, biochemically, defines the process by which harmful compounds, such as drugs or poisons, are converted to less toxic compounds in the body for excretion. Let’s take a step back – what on earth would our body need to detoxify, what are these poisons of which we speak? Here’s a brief list:
Pesticides on our food
All medications including pain relief and oral contraceptive pill
Heavy metals in our environment
Skin care and personal care items
Paint fumes, nail art, DIY material, toys, cleaning products
If you stop for a minute and list all of the chemicals that you come into contact with, which aren’t directly from nature, the truth can be quite shocking.
The Environmental Working Group conducted a survey of more than 2300 people and concluded that on average an individual is exposed to 126 unique chemical ingredients from an average of 9 personal care products[i]. Of these 1 of every 5 adults are potentially exposed daily to all of the top 7 carcinogenic impurities common to personal care products – hydroquinone, ethylene dioxide, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde, nitrosamines, PAHs and acrylamide. The statistics for women are even more shocking with an average exposure of up to 168 ingredients from 12 products[ii]. And this is only the point of the dagger, the exposure continues via cleaning products around the home, fragrances, exhaust fumes, burnt and overcooked food, pesticides, plastic wrap and so it goes on. You can see how this list could easily slide up into the 100s and 1000s.
However, considering all of this, we are still alive, we are still functioning and we can still carry on wading through this onslaught of toxicity. How so? Well, we have a very complicated and fine-tuned system of detoxifying these poisons from our body – this is for the most part via the liver, then also other organs are involved such as skin, kidney, spleen and intestines.
The liver has a phenomenal capacity to convert lipophiles (fat loving molecules) into more water soluble metabolites which can be efficiently eliminated from the body. It has developed a complex system to do this which we refer to as phase 1, phase 2 and sometimes phase 3 detoxification. However as you can imagine the liver needs a good pool of resources to help it to do this and to carry out these thousands of processes. This is mostly by way of nutrients provided through food (essential), and some which the body can manufacture itself (non-essential). The picture here is starting to unravel. Put yourself in the situation where you are living in an urban area, with a stressful job and commute, your food is less than ideal as you buy a pre-packaged ‘healthy’ option from your local store on your way home and wash it down with a glass of wine or 2, then add on another layer of genetic idiosyncrasies which may increase or decrease certain enzyme activity resulting in less effective detoxification, then it is apparent that this person’s toxic load is already brimming, so where are all those essential nutrients going to come from so that his liver can do his daily sweep up? Well the liver learns to cut corners (it will always do the route which requires the least energy) and it will use up any reserves this stressed individual has left. Now add on years and decades of the same and perhaps you can see how despite our liver’s ability to plug away at its job, a little gentle support and nurturing would not go amiss!
Here are some signs and symptoms of a sluggish and/or struggling liver:
Poor and ‘foggy’ memory
Hives, Itchy rashes, dermatitis and other skin conditions
Intolerance to alcohol
Intolerance to coffee
Difficulty losing weight or easy to gain weight
Fat around the middle
Poor excretion and elimination i.e. constipation
Fatty stools and indigestion
Loss of appetite
Low energy levels
Yellowing of the eyes
Dark urine and stools
The good news is, that the liver is the only organ that can regenerate itself given the right support. So how should we support our liver and offer it a gentle hug in appreciation?
One particular process which has been assaulted at this time of year is our sulphation capabilities. Sulphation is responsible for detoxing alcohols, hormones, xenobiotics and bacterial toxins. If you have access to your DNA data then this may be effected by the expression of the SULT and SUOX genes. If polymorphisms exist on these genes, then sulphation support would be particularly helpful to relieve any clinical symptoms listed above.
Nutrients to support sulphation and other detoxification pathways for phase i and ii include:
Molybdenum helps to detoxify sulphurs in the body. Molybdenum assists the liver in the handling of sulphites[iii]. Many people have issues processing sulphites; think wines and dried fruits, which may indicate issues with liver detoxification via sulphation. Interestingly, molybdenum is an important nutrient to aid normal blood sugar management.
N-acetyl cysteine, which is normally found in high-protein foods such animal products, supports production of the potent antioxidant glutathione – another nutrient essential for optimal detoxification. It is known to protect against oxidative damage associated with iron overload[iv] and has vital function to protect the liver from chemical exposure and paracetamol toxicity.[v]
Indole-3-carbinol; which is normally found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale and other greens. This nutrient increases liver activity[vi] and actively promotes the breakdown of oestrogen[vii]. We know that circulating oestrogen can cause symptoms such as PMS and other oestrogen driven conditions.[viii] [ix]
Broccoli and broccoli sprout extract specifically contain high levels of sulphoraphane which can reduce allergic sensitisation to pollution, thus inducing an antioxidant response[x]. Broccoli sprouts are a very potent antioxidant showing up to 95% inhibition of damaging free-radicals.[xi] Also sulphoraphane provides isothiocyanate, a phytochemical that induces[xii] [xiii] [xiv] liver activity[xv] which deactivates damaging metabolites of oestrogens.
Antioxidants such as alpha lipoic acid and ellagic acid from pomegranate are potent fat-loving antioxidants [xvi] with free radical scavenging capability, and have the ability to inhibit DNA damage, [xvii] and exert anti-inflammatory and anti-mutagenic activity. [xviii] Alpha lipoic acid may help protect against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. [xix] [xx]
For a healthy and happy liver my main advice would be to heed this advice on an 80/20 basis all year round:
Reduce stress from environment and lifestyle as much as possible
Consider how you might be able to reduce your ‘toxic load’ through lifestyle, dietary and environmental adjustments
Eat, local organic food where possible
Drink plenty of filtered water
Choose a whole food diet which is free of refined and processed foods, added sugars
Eat fibre and nutrient-rich food from a diversity of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and the best quality meat and fish you can afford.
Have a positive outlook and sunny disposition to spring you forward into the new season!