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Detoxification - A Natural Approach

Updated on September 24, 2011

Types of Toxin

To properly cover the subject of detoxification, we really need to cover the subject of toxins, which can come from outside the body entirely, be ingested after being produced in the body’s cavities such as the digestive system (the inside of the gastrointestinal tract is actually outside the body) or, finally, be produced internally; the last of these includes such substances as urea and uric acid.

There are also various classes of toxins, set out below:

Heavy Metals

This group of substances includes some that are not thought to be metals at all by chemists (selenium in excess and tellurium for example) and some that are far from being heavy metals according to chemists, the most obvious of which is aluminium. (I’m using the British spelling here because I’m British!) However, they are usually lumped together by nutritionists and doctors as a toxin group. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some substances in this group are actually beneficial in small amounts; copper and manganese for example.

Sources of these toxins are many and varied. However, a short and incomplete list would include lead from solder, traffic fumes and old paint (used in some tin cans), mercury from fillings and contaminated fish, cadmium from cigarettes, and aluminium from various skin care products, antacids, and dissolved from some cooking pans. The most obvious effects of most heavy metals are on the nervous system, affecting mental ability, coordination, memory and behaviour. The main route out for these toxins is twofold; through the bile (eventually ending up in faeces) and through the kidneys.

Chemicals, drugs and food additives

Formaldehyde, solvents and petrochemicals are obviously unhealthy, but many other chemicals that may be consumed are also unhealthy; pesticides, herbicides and assorted food additives are included in this group too. Also, although medical drugs are obviously necessary for some they have to be detoxified; some drugs are natural chemicals (digitalin for example) but none of them are natural to the human body. This group also includes the various toxins naturally present in plants, but on the whole most food plants have levels of toxins that the body can cope with, because humans have been consuming them since there were humans.

The main effects of these toxins are also on the nervous system, but they interfere with more of the body’s systems than that and many of them are carcinogenic. The main route for removing this group of toxins is by chemical processing in the liver.

Food Impurities

This group overlaps to some extent with the previous one and most of the remarks regarding them are the same. This group of toxins includes higher alcohols (found in alcoholic drinks as a by-product of brewing), fungal toxins found in such things as aged and blue cheeses, and chemicals produced by processing or cooking such as trans-fats, protein breakdown products found in barbecued or grilled meat, and assorted chemicals such as the acrylamide found in fried potatoes. This group also includes ethanol, the alcohol in intoxicating drinks, which is toxic but not normally considered a toxic substance; ethanol also has a few beneficial effects, largely on the circulation.

Intestinal Microbial Compounds

The microbes that live inside human intestines (and also those of other animals) produce a wide variety of chemicals as a by-product of their own metabolism. Some of these are actually beneficial; for example, some of them produce lactic acid which suppresses the growth of pathogens, some produce butanoic acid that helps the health of the intestinal lining, and also some of what are normally thought of as vitamins (such as biotin and vitamin K) can be produced by intestinal bacteria. However, some of these substances are toxic; examples are higher alcohols produced by intestinal fungi, and various polyamines produced as breakdown products of proteins. These include putrescine and cadeverine, the names of which give a clue as to what they smell like. These toxins are not normally absorbed to any great extent, but an unhealthy intestinal wall (which tends to be more porous than it should be) can lead to absorption of compounds such as this.

Metabolic toxins and breakdown products

The body produces some toxins as part of its own metabolism, and to a large extent this is unavoidable. However, as these compounds are so produced a healthy body is very good at removing them. Examples are ammonia and urea, formed by protein breakdown, and uric acid formed by breaking down purines. Purines are compounds found in all cells because they form part of such compounds as ATP, DNA and RNA. Some foods are particularly high in purines, and can lead to uric acid overload; one problem caused by this is gout.

Another set of extremely toxic compounds is the free radicals formed as part of the process of oxidising (“burning”) food for energy. The body is very good at handling these, but the process is not perfect and so these radicals can and do cause tissue damage; this is thought to be one of the major factors in aging.

Detoxification Methods

The ways of reducing the toxin load of the body are twofold; reducing intake and increasing removal.

Reducing toxin intake

The way to do this is to make the diet as natural as possible, and to follow the common-sense procedures usually found under the umbrella of “food hygiene”. The latter makes as sure as possible that the consumption of pathogenic microbes is as low as possible, but many foods (particularly plant ones) have an exterior coating of unnatural chemicals such as preservatives and pesticides, so this is another good reason for washing your fruit and vegetables.

The idea of a natural diet is to decrease the intake of preservatives, pesticides and so on; the really ideal natural diet is an organic one, because this also excludes pesticide residues inside your food and also such things as antibiotic residues and hormones found in meat. The diet should also be high in vegetable matter (fruit, vegetables and whole grains but not too much of the last for other reasons) and low in animal protein; most people’s diet is unnecessarily high in animal protein, which creates toxins. Also, high-fibre diets reduce the digestive transit time and thus reduce the opportunity to absorb toxins.

Mucilaginous fibres, such as pectin and the fibre in oat bran, bind toxins and thus prevent absorption; they also bind toxins being expelled by the liver and therefore prevent them being re-absorbed. The same type of fibre also binds cholesterol and therefore reduces blood cholesterol level, preferentially reducing LDL (the bad kind). Alcohol in large amounts has to be detoxified and therefore makes it hard for the liver to get rid of anything else, and should therefore be avoided.

Two more things deserve specific mention. The first is smoking; cigarette smoke (whether tobacco or otherwise) contains a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals which are known to cause heart disease, other circulatory problems and cancer; tobacco also contains cadmium in quite large amounts. Don’t smoke, and if you do smoke stop.

Secondly, it is a very good idea indeed not to take drugs (whether prescription or otherwise) that you don’t need. Drugs are unnatural chemicals almost by definition, and have to be detoxified. Far too many people are taking large numbers of prescription pills they no longer need; get rid of them. Of course, if you are taking prescribed drugs then consult your doctor before stopping them; some prescription drugs have very dangerous withdrawal symptoms if suddenly removed.

Such things as painkillers should only be taken when necessary, and illegal drugs are potentially very dangerous indeed – in the latter case partly because you don’t know what you’re getting.

Aiding toxin removal

The first step here is to keep the toxins as dilute as possible; this essentially means drinking plenty of water, to keep the kidneys working at getting the various water-soluble toxins out of the system. Also in this category is the semi-soluble mucilaginous plant fibres mentioned above; these aid in preventing re-absorption of various toxins expelled in the bile, including natural toxins such as bilirubin which is a breakdown product of worn-out red blood cells. Also, various agents aid in bile production and hence the removal of toxins by this route; the best known is probably dandelion root, which is also mildly diuretic.

Another important of this process is to aid in the breakdown of toxins, which happens mainly in the liver; the main possible supplements here are milk thistle and N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) both of which stimulate the natural detoxifying enzymes in the liver. In fact, NAC is so powerful in this regard that it is used clinically for paracetamol (acetaminophen) poisoning. The amounts used for this, however, are so large that it’s only practical to give them intravenously.

For removal of heavy metals, the two main factors are sulphur and selenium; sulphur in the form of sulphur amino acids. The mechanism for the removal of heavy metals in this way is chelation, which means chemical binding between the sulphur and the metals. The main agents are methionine and cysteine, found in all proteins, but garlic and onions also contain some unusual sulphur compounds that also help this. The same sulphur compounds, in fact, responsible for their characteristic smell and taste.

Another group of compounds that are useful here is the antioxidants, which work basically by keeping down levels of toxins formed as part of the metabolism.

Controlling intestinal permeability

This is really part of the process of decreasing toxin absorption, but deserves special attention. A healthy digestive system only absorbs significant amounts of material in the small intestine (other than water, absorbed in the colon) and even so, ideally the intestinal wall should only allow through small, simple nutrient molecules such as amino acids, simple sugars and free fatty acids. However, an unhealthy digestive system allows through larger molecules such as half-digested food proteins; if allowed to carry on for too long, this can lead to various immune system problems – because, for example, large fragments of milk protein don’t belong in the bloodstream. Also, a poor digestion means that undigested food gets into the large intestine where some of the bacteria work on it to produce toxins. The answer here is twofold; improve the digestion and rebalance the intestinal flora. The easiest way to accomplish the latter is consumption of probiotics. As for improving digestion, there are several things that may help here; one is to eat little and often instead of straining the digestion with large meals. If this doesn’t help enough, then there are various commercial supplements of digestive enzymes available.


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