When people talk of detoxification and cleansing protocols somehow it turns into esoteric pseudoscience. It is true that most of the detox diets out there are not scientifically proven. It is also the truth that most of the natural traditional detoxifying herbs are also not scientifically proven. However, again some of detoxification protocols have been around for thousands of years of traditional use.
In the end, the best detoxification is to stop absorbing toxins in the first place. This means eating food that is low on a food chain to avoid the bioaccumulation of all of the POP’s (persistent organic pollutants) in a food chain. That is the only real way to lower our toxic load and to avoid the negative health effects of environmental pollution. Toxicity can kill you. It might be directly or it might be true cancer or it can create permanent and lasting chronic health diseases. The situation is serious and much more serious than most people realize. People like to think about detoxification in the form of an awesome fun weekend diet to make and pick for Instagram. WHO estimates are that environmental pollution is responsible for the deaths of millions of people globally every year directly and is responsible for tens of millions of chronic conditions that range from permanent disability to cancer.
There are programs of dieting that are designed to help reduce inflammation and overall body toxicity that are backed by science. They are all based on a natural (meaning in line with human evolution) whole food plant-based diet with a low level of environmental toxin exposure. That is it. It is our body or in other words, our liver that does the majority of the detoxification of all the chemicals that can’t be dissolved in water. Water-soluble chemicals are mostly removed and detoxification is done with the help of the kidneys.
If you think that you can eat most of the time anything that you want and go on some detoxification cleansing diet for a month or two, in reality, this will have no long-lasting effects. We can find this line of thinking in Traditional Chinese Medicine for example, or in the tradition of Nativity Fast and The Great Fast or Lent practiced by the Eastern Orthodox Churches where only fish is allowed from all animal products, and “real” fast is even without the fish too. However, that will work no more. Most of the babies are born these days already with massive toxic build-up. Most of the children in western countries have a visible arteriosclerotic plaque by the age of 7, and a significant portion of them are obese. If we do not regulate our diet on the scientific bases, meaning eat the food that science and evolution have defined not our emotional desire, any cleansing detoxification protocol is just wasting time.
There are some scientifically backed methods to lower the overall body toxicity. One of them will be to eat a lot of fiber.
Fiber bound to an excess of estrogen in the body and can have protective effects against hormonal cancers like breast cancer. Because of all of the xenoestrogens eating an adequate amount of fiber is the right decision. Also, all fat-soluble molecules like cholesterol can only be detoxified by pushing them directly into the digestive tract in the hope that they will bond with fiber and leave the body by excrement and not by kidneys that can only detoxify water-soluble chemicals.
Fiber-rich food intake is associated with a low level of lead, cadmium, mercury, and other heavy metals in the body too. Fiber bound itself to the lead and other heavy metals in such a strong way that makes absorption impossible. Absorption happens later when probiotic bacteria dissolve some of the fiber, so it is not a fail-safe solution. However, in the end, heavy metal bioavailability from animal-based foods was higher than that from vegetable-based foods because of all of the fiber and phytochemicals (1). In this study just adding kale to the pig kidneys (one of the most abundant sources of cadmium), the toxic exposure was significantly lower. When scientists measure trace element concentrations meaning exposure to lead and cadmium in subjects who changed from a mixed diet to a lactovegetarian diet same things happen (2). The plasma and hair concentrations of selenium, copper, and zinc had decreased but those of magnesium had increased. Concentrations of cadmium, lead, mercury in hair were lower. The tendency was towards the increased elimination of lead and cadmium and mercury following the change to the vegetarian diet. Within three months the levels significantly dropped and stay down for the rest of the year following experiment. After switching back to the regular diet, they come back three years later, and levels were back up to the old high values. The story of why selenium decreased by 40% in this study is because European soil (this study was done in Sweden) is severely selenium deficient. Mercury was down 20%, cadmium, and lead 50%.
There are scientifically proven specific plant species that can aid in detoxification of heavy metals and other toxins as well because of their high antioxidant potential. Plants species, in general, have effects on chelation of heavy metals and their elimination from the body but some phytochemicals are just stronger in chelating some heavy metals than others (3).
Curcumin, for example, became one of the healthiest and most researched plants in the last decades or so. Curcumin reduces the toxicity induced by mercury, chromium, cadmium, arsenic, copper, lead, maintains the liver antioxidant enzyme status and, prevents histological injury, lipid peroxidation, and glutathione (GSH) depletion, and protects against mitochondrial dysfunction. Curcumin has scavenging and chelating properties that can chelate or bound to heavy metals allowing them to be exerted out (4). We do not need to take a curcumin supplement if we don’t have kidney stones; we can just eat cheap turmeric powder mixed with ground pepper (I will explain this in more detail in one of the other articles).
Particular types of fiber and carbohydrates found in seaweed also are able to stick to heavy metals and help them be released out from the body. Seaweed compounds have been found to chelate (stick to and bind) different heavy metals including radioactive strontium (cancer-causing compound) from the body (5).
Cilantro is also very well-known and a great binder of heavy metals. The preventive effect of Coriandrum sativum, (Chinese parsley) on lead deposition was investigated in a couple of different studies (6).
Administration of Chinese parsley to mice significantly decreased lead deposition in the femur and severe lead-induced injury in the kidneys suggesting that it has chelation affinities tours lead by some undiscovered substance contained in Chinese parsley.
Besides this, we have one of the folk remedies for all illnesses in natural medicine, the garlic. When garlic is cut, crushed, or chewed, an enzyme called alliinase converts allin to allicin. Allicin in garlic is the actual active compound. It is designed to defend the plant from insects chewing on it. It is responsible for the intense odor of fresh garlic. The way we prepare garlic influences the number of beneficial compounds we receive from it. Because it is not thermostable and only gets created when cells in garlic are damaged, it must be first crushed and left alone for some time, and only when eaten raw, only then it will have its germicidal effect. What was interesting is that with antiviral and antimicrobial properties of garlic it is also a strong heavy metal detoxifier and no garlic does not have an antiplatelet activity like aspirin. The aim of this Iranian study (7) was to investigate the therapeutic effects of garlic and compare it with d-penicillamine (the pharmaceutical grade chelation therapy drug) in patients with chronic lead poisoning. They gave each subject garlic tablet containing 400 mg dried powder garlic that is equivalent to 1200 µg allicin or 2 g fresh garlic. Yes, 2 g of fresh garlic. In this case not raw garlic just a regular tablet supplement that you can buy in a store. The supplement will not give you bad breath. Garlic and the pharmaceutical grade drug both reduced lead levels by 20% and the garlic had no side effects. On another hand, there are serious side effects of d-penicillamine. Allicin is known as a chelating agent in the treatment of lead poisoning but also that S-allyl cysteine and S-allyl mercaptocysteine, both substances founded in garlic extract, inhibit lead absorption directly from the gastrointestinal tract. In addition, garlic had more clinical improvement than d-penicillamine in a number of clinical manifestations including irritability, systolic blood pressure, headache, decreased deep tendon reflex. The reason for this is that chelation drugs can only reduce blood levels. The problem is that the heavy metals are not just in the blood but are in the cells and the body’s own mechanism must remove them from the cells where chelation drugs have no impact. However, it looks like that garlic did it just by itself. It helped the entire body not just blood to detoxify. Detoxifying just by drinking water is not a whole solution.
Fat in our body acts as a deposit for these toxins. When we start to lose weight toxins get released into the bloodstream. If we are on a diet, it is not enough to go water fasting or juice fasting to detoxify. We need to eat fiber too. We need a lot of healthy bacteria in our intestines to protect us from food toxins and release chemicals that our body needs, and we will only get them from fiber-rich food.
Another scientifically-backed method is to eat antioxidants to neutralize the significant amount of these toxins from doing damage to our DNA. In terms of how much antioxidants I will suggest at least 40.000 units on an ORAC scale.
We need antioxidants and fiber-rich toxin-free meals so in other words broccoli, carrots, kale, apples, and other vegetables and fruits. That is a healthy diet detoxification plan. Coffee enemas not so much.
A large amount of fiber in the diet will clean our intestines and feed our probiotic bacteria at the same time. If we want, we can add activated charcoal to the mix to clean our intestines from the inside. What activated charcoal does is it allows harmful drugs and toxins that are in the gut to bind to it. Its permeable surface has a negative electric charge. That is like an antioxidant just it is not, it does not neutralize anything it just binds to it and gets it out. It attracts positively charged ions and gas, and all oxidants and toxins are bound until you poop. This is the reason activated charcoal is often used among patients who suffered from a drug overdose or poisoning since it assists the body in eliminating these unwanted materials by attaching and not allowing them to go free and enter the bloodstream. It is a common ingredient in water filter systems as well because it can trap pesticides, solvents, industrial waste, chemicals, and other impurities.
Besides fiber, we need a large number of antioxidants to protect our cells from toxic damage. Only on top of that, we can try to do commonly known detoxifying methods like drinking a lot of herbal teas and distilled water and green and other vegetable juices, but again we should do that every day just by part of our regular lifestyle and diet. We can only live healthily and help our body do the job. Anything else like detoxifying from time to time will lead to disease.
Some scientifically proven chemicals can help our liver do a better job at detoxifying but it is just an addendum. The liver is the most crucial organ in detoxification beside the kidneys and then the intestinal tract, from the mouth to the colon. Intestinal tract does not only have the task of digestion but also of the elimination of toxins and the prevention of toxins from food to enter the blood at the first stage. Lungs and bronchi also remove toxins in the form of carbonic gas. If the liver, lungs, and kidneys do not detoxify efficiently, the body needs help from the skin that removes toxins in the form of crystals. Crystals are the remains of the breakdown metabolism of food rich in protein, such as eggs, fish, meat, and dairy. Urea is part of the group of crystals.
If you have a strong odor, it might even have clinical significance. If insulin level drops, the body begins to break down fat for fuel, which leads to a buildup of ketones. That accumulation, in turn, may produce a change in body odor, and it might be a sign it is time to see a doctor. If you want to do a trendy keto diet full of protein and low in carbs, you need to know that you are going to have a change in body odor and also an impact on the smell of your breath.
However, skin or any other organ is not the primary detoxifying engine in the body. The liver is and the kidneys.
If the liver is unable to detoxify for example in cases like cirrhosis, we die. If our kidneys are not able to detoxify we die or use modern technology to prolong our life like dialysis machines to clean our blood artificially.
Passages selected from a book: “Go Vegan? Review of Science: Part 1” [Milos Pokimica]
- Cadmium bioavailability from vegetable and animal-based foods assessed with in vitro digestion/caco-2 cell model. J Med Assoc Thai. 2011 Feb;94(2):164-71
- Trace element status in healthy subjects switching from a mixed to a lactovegetarian diet for 12 mo. Am J Clin Nutr. 1992 Apr;55(4):885-90
- Phytochelatins and Their Roles in Heavy Metal Detoxification doi: 10.1104/pp.123.3.825.
- Curcumin derivatives as metal-chelating agents with potential multifunctional activity for pharmaceutical applications. J Inorg Biochem. 2014 Oct;139:38-48
- Alginate enhances excretion and reduces absorption of strontium and cesium in rats. Biol Pharm Bull. 2013;36(3):485-91
- Preventive effect of Coriandrum sativum (Chinese parsley) on localized lead deposition in ICR mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 2001 Oct;77(2-3):203-8
- Comparison of therapeutic effects of garlic and d-Penicillamine in patients with chronic occupational lead poisoning. Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol. 2012