Different Ways to Detox

by Inga Yandell

The term detox has become ubiquitous in a society seeking to offset stress and pollution, and (for some) derogatory—in such—that it conjures visions of harsh dietary regimes or eclectic protocols (enema anyone?).

Yes, enemas can be part of the program but it turns out there are many ways to detox and hack your own version based on your individual needs or goals. I profess to be relatively new to the purge and reboot scene but our guest author is somewhat of an expert when it comes to optimising and innovating health and performance.

Ben Greenfield is known to many as the go-to guy for better living through biohacking. Well-versed in the latest science and technology, Ben tops the charts on iTunes with his weekly podcast (Ben Greenfield Fitness) and delves into the most diverse topics with an astute (Masters degree, no-less) mind and childlike curiosity. In this two part piece, Ben deconstructs ‘detoxing’ to illuminate on hidden toxins and provide us with an arsenal of different options for combating the assault on our health—decreasing our ability to function optimally and perform with increased efficiency.

On a recent episode (#216) of the Tim Ferriss podcast, Arnold Schwarzenegger (@Schwarzenegger) shared a sobering statistic with Tim’s audience—one worth highlighting: “More than 7 million people die annually due to pollution related illnesses and 5.5 million die prematurely due to airborne pollutants—making pollution the leading global risk factor for disease.

The truth is pollution goes far beyond the toxins found in smog and brake dust, and in this article, you’re going to discover other common toxins, the toxins you may rarely think about, and how you can detox your body.

What Are Toxins?

Let’s begin with an understanding of what toxins actually are. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, they found some pretty shocking results which suggest that no matter how “clean” you live your life, just about everybody shows some evidence of a buildup of toxins.

The CDC’s report discovered an average of 212 chemicals in people’s blood or urine, 75 of which had never before been measured in the U.S. population.

The chemicals included:

Acrylamide (formed when foods are baked or fried at high temperatures, and as a byproduct of cigarette smoke).

Arsenic, found in many home-building products.

Environmental phenols, including bisphenol A (found in plastics, food packaging and epoxy resins) and triclosan (used as an antibacterial agent in personal care products such as toothpaste and hand soap).

Perchlorate, used in airplane fuel, explosives and fireworks.

Perfluorinated chemicals, used to create non-stick cookware.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, used in fire retardants found in consumer products such as mattresses.

Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), found in paints, air fresheners, cleaning products, cosmetics, upholstery fabrics, carpets, dry-cleaned clothing, wood preservatives, and paint strippers.

When you put all these together, these chemicals can indeed present a toxic burden to your body, and (as the CDC found) can accumulate in blood, urine and tissue—which is probably one reason why the plastic-based versions of these chemicals are sometimes referred to as “obesogens,” due to the suggestion that they may somehow accumulate in fat tissue. While your body does actually have detoxification organs (your liver and kidney) that can process many of these chemicals and toxins, these chemicals can potentially cause medical problems if your liver and kidneys are not functioning properly or are overburdened with a poor diet.

How Your Body Normally Detoxes

While the kidneys are very important for acting as a filtration mechanism for your blood and removing wastes and excess water from the body, it’s the liver that has an even more important job when it comes to detoxification. Along with filtering your blood to remove toxins, your liver uses a two-phase process to break down chemicals and toxins. During phase 1, toxins are neutralized and broken into smaller fragments. Then, in phase 2, the toxins are bound to other molecules, creating a new non-toxic molecule that can be excreted in your bile, urine or stool.

But order for this liver detoxification to work, your body must have adequate nutrients. If not, the phase 1 and phase 2 processes may not work adequately, which can leave toxic substances to build up in your body. The good news is that there are specific nutrients that support both pathways.

Phase 1:

B-Vitamins (B2, B3, B6, B12, folic acid).

Flavonoids, found in fruits and vegetables.

Foods rich in vitamins A, C and E (eg, carrots, oranges, wheat germ, almonds).

Glutathione, found in avocado, watermelon, asparagus, walnuts, fresh fruits and veggies, and the nutrients n-acetylcysteine, cysteine and methionine.

Branched chain amino acids, found in animal protein (dairy products, red meat, eggs and whey protein).

Phospholipids, found in eggs, lean meats, organ meats, fish and soybeans.

Phase 2:

Indole-3-carbinol, found in cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts.

Limonene, found in oranges, tangerines, caraway seeds and dill seeds.

Glutathione, found in fresh fruits and veggies (as above).

Fish oil.

Amino acids from protein.

Multiple studies have demonstrated the efficacy of these nutrients for supporting proper liver detox pathways.

How Detoxing Products Work

This is where all those fancy detox supplements you hear about come in. Like, cyanobacteria is a specific type of bacteria found in spirulina that is an accumulator (also known as a “biosorbent”) of heavy minerals. It does this via a process called ion-exchange binding, and can significantly reduce heavy metal toxicity in tissue. 100 micrograms (a very small amount) of spirulina hexane extract (basically, algae!) has been shown to remove over 85% of arsenic in tissue.

At doses of 250-500 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, spirulina has been shown to prevent metal toxicity from occurring in pregnant rats’ offspring when the mothers were given fluoride, and it has also been noted to reduce lead accumulation in brain tissue, protect against heavy metal cadmium buildup, and attenuate mercury accumulation in the testes. 

Granted, spirulina is one of the few molecules in existence that actually has a large body of evidence to support it’s detoxifying activity, but other compounds such as dandelion extract, ginseng and zinc have also been clinically proven to reduce heavy metal buildup. And while heavy metals are only one form of a toxin that can accumulate in your tissues, there is no doubt that science has proven that these toxins can indeed be removed via the use of these specific “detox” compounds found in nature. So if someone “guffaws” at the ideas of detoxing superfoods such as spirulina, I would actually beg to differ.

Or take milk thistle extract, another popular detox or cleansing supplement. Studies show that milk thistle actually protects and promotes the growth of liver cells, fights oxidation (a process that damages cells), and actually blocks toxins from entering the cell membrane.

Silymarins, a group of antioxidants extracted from the seeds of milk thistle, have antioxidant properties several times greater than that of vitamins C and E, with silybin as one silymarin that has been shown to be especially effective in promoting liver health. Milk thistle also helps to enhance detoxification by preventing the depletion of glutathione, which is necessary for phase 2 liver detoxification to be completed.

As you can see from the two simple examples of spirulina and milk thistle, things aren’t quite as simple as painting with a broad brush and saying that detox supplements and diets simply don’t work. While the detox evidence for—say—cayenne pepper and maple syrup juice really doesn’t exist, evidence for other nutrients actually does exist.

Should You Detox?

So should you be rushing out to spend lots of money on capsules of spirulina and bags of powdered milk thistle extract? Not necessarily. The fact is, your body has it’s own powerful methods of detoxification — and can activate these methods without the use of fancy diets or fancy detox spa visits. These methods primarily come in the form of—no surprises here—your liver and your kidneys.

For example, your liver prevents pathogens from passing into your bloodstream, processes environmental toxins for safe removal, and helps to rid your body of excess nitrogen that build up from the breakdown of proteins and amino acids. Your kidneys filter blood, remove excess water, pass urea (which is a toxin that builds up as a byproduct of protein breakdown), and sends this all out of your body via your urine.

So if you eat real foods from the grocery store aisle that support your liver and kidneys, or avoid foods that stress your liver and kidneys, you’re already detoxing every day—and unless you’ve gone through something like a serious bout of alcoholism or heavy metal toxicity or obesity or years and years of junk food (and this is indeed often the case), you don’t really need any fancy herbal blends or detox diets or colonic and liver cleanses, although they may accelerate the process of detoxification, or they may be necessary if your body is very toxic.

In the case of your liver, you can do things like avoid high amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats from processed and packaged foods like canola oil and French fries, and instead eat those type of fats from fish, meat, seeds and nuts. You can avoid high amounts of fructose and sugar, limit alcohol, consume plenty of egg yolks (which contain choline that your liver uses to process fats), eat good, organic liver every now and then and pay attention to what kind of soaps and shampoos and household cleaners you’re using.

For your kidneys, you can limit intake of high fructose corn syrup, drink plenty of water, limit alcohol intake, and—if you are predisposed to renal issues—limit excessive protein intake (e.g. more than 200g/day of protein).

You can also include natural herbs and spices that help to control inflammation and gently detox the gut and blood, such as turmeric, garlic, ginger, oregano, cilantro, fennel, licorice, curries, cayenne and high mineral drinks such as glass bottled water and sea salt added to other drinks.

Ultimately, many popular detox and cleansing diets probably feel beneficial because of what they eliminate, and not because of any magical ingredients. All that lemon juice, cayenne pepper, maple syrup, and fancy water is probably not doing much when it comes to cleansing and detoxifying, but all the processed fats, high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, candy, soda, commercial meat and snack foods you’re eliminating on a detox diet are likely giving your liver and kidneys a chance to step up and do their normal detoxification duties, since they’re no longer overburdened with bad food and not enough micronutrients.

About the Author

Voted as the top personal trainer in the USA and one of the world’s most influential people in health and fitness for 2013 and 2014, Ben Greenfield ‘Fitness And Lifestyle’ Performance Coach is head coach at Greenfield Fitness Systems, an Ironman triathlete, Spartan racer, nutritionist, and fitness coach. He holds masters degrees in exercise physiology and biomechanics, and advanced certifications in sports nutrition, personal training, and strength and conditioning.

With over a decade of experience helping professional, collegiate and recreational athletes and exercise enthusiasts achieve their goals, and using practical methods and cutting-edge science, he teaches you how to use the most efficient techniques possible to transform your body, achieve your physical goals and become superhuman – whether you want to finish a triathlon, shed a few pounds, or just live as long and healthy as possible.

You can learn much, more more about Ben at BenGreenfieldFitness.com

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
Inga Yandell

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