Written by Euan MacLennan
Traditional systems of healthcare have used purification and cleansing techniques for centuries, here we will find out more about what toxins are and how they are detoxified.
What is detoxification?
There is a great deal of media and advertising coverage surrounding various ‘detox’ and cleansing regimes, but very little of this coverage really examines what detoxification means. One place to start might be a definition of detoxification. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a process that ‘removes toxic substances or qualities’. It is well documented in medical literature that the body uses the liver, kidneys, bowels, skin and lungs as organs of elimination as well as detoxification. Traditional systems of healthcare have used purification and cleansing techniques for centuries. But what are the ‘toxins’ that are being ‘detoxified’?
A toxin is anything that is potentially poisonous, causing damage or death to an organism. A toxin may be endogenous or exogenous. By endogenous, we mean that the toxins grow or originate from within the body. We create endogenous free radical toxins all the time. Free radicals are a part of normal biological processes such as cell signalling and are created from molecular oxygen. They are the waste products of normal cellular metabolism but can also be generated in response to environmental sources. Some sources of free radicals from cellular metabolism are prostaglandin synthesis, phagocytosis and enzyme activities.
If excessive free radicals are produced they can compromise the body’s normal defence mechanism as they overwhelm our elimination systems. Free radicals are known to produce adverse changes throughout the body by causing chemical bonds to occur between molecules that are programmed to operate independently. These bonds, known as cross-linking, reduce the ability of the cell to adjust to change. By affecting the molecular bonding of cells, free radicals can damage the formation of the cell wall and the nucleus. They may also set off a chain reaction that damages cells, eating away at their membrane and corrupting their genetic DNA. This ability to influence cellular behaviour by disrupting the exchange of information and nutrients across the cell membrane makes the cell sick. A free radicals’ ability to damage DNA and impair its information managing function causes the DNA within the cell to mutate. This mutation implicates free radicals in numerous degenerative disorders.
Exogenous toxins are those that originate outside of the body but, in some way, make contact with our internal environment to cause potential damage. Examples include mycotoxins, neurotoxins, aflatoxins, venomous toxins, environmental toxins and many more. In Ayurveda toxins are called ‘ama’ and refer to anything that is undigested. We all know about poisonous mushrooms such as ‘The Poison Deathcap’ mushroom, Amanita phalloids., causing poisoning and death. Aflatoxins, a type of fungus commonly found on peanuts and grains, are one of the leading causes of liver cancer in the world. Alcohol is a renowned toxin, causing liver damage through repeated exposure. Acetaldehyde is a toxic substance produced in the body from alcohol and is one of the impurities found in cheap wine spirits. Some researchers believe that an acetaldehyde build-up is the cause of hangovers. If the liver’s detoxification pathways are impaired, aldehydes can, instead of being converted to the next intermediate product, build up to harmful levels and cause damage as they are often more toxic than the original substances from which they are derived.
It is probably the metabolism of methanol to formaldehyde and formic acid that caused the symptoms of the hangover. People who are efficient methanol metabolizers suffer more. This is reinforced by the fact that the types of drinks associated with more severe hangovers contain higher levels of methanol (Calder, 1997).
All types of alcoholic drinks contain some methanol, a substance blamed for the worst hangovers. Whiskey, cheap red wine, fruit brandy and other dark spirits contain the most methanol, sometimes as much as 2% by volume. Vodka and other clear drinks contain the least. In the liver, methanol takes 10 times longer than ethanol to break down.
Human generated poisons are now omnipresent in our environment. The chemical, pharmaceutical, agriculture and food industries have created a host of poisons that have infiltrated our air, water and soil. We are exposed to these products every day. They have penetrated our food chain, our homes and are a part of our eco-system in the guise of insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, flame retardants, heavy metals, petrochemicals, pharmaceutical drugs and radiation. Numerous studies attest to the direct relationship between the increase in poisons in our environment, their detrimental effect on our ecosystem and both adult and children’s health (Schwartz, 2004).
Phase 1 and 2 enzyme pathways
Fortunately, the body has its own in-built protection system. Many toxins and free radicals are metabolized and de-toxified through the liver via the Phase 1 and Phase 2 detoxification pathways. The liver clears many pharmaceutical drugs, hormones, and industrial pollutants. The Phase 1 pathway is comprised of a range of systems, including the cytochrome P-450 enzyme system, that can convert poisons via certain chemical reactions (such as oxidation, hydrolysis or reduction) into a less toxic state. The Phase 2 process then binds or ‘conjugates’ cysteine, glutathione or sulphur with these metabolites from Phase 1 and they are excreted by the bile via the bowel or as a water-soluble compound via the bladder. However, if Phase 1 is overly ‘induced’ it can create an overload of free radicals which can damage the liver and swamp Phase 2. An overactive Phase 1 and underactive Phase 2 is a recipe for illness. The ‘toxins’ that the liver cannot metabolise often end up stored in fatty tissue, including the brain, nerves and endocrine glands. Hence toxicity being associated with neurological, fertility, metabolic and energy issues. Herbs such as rosemary and milk thistle may be used to support Phase 1 and 2 detoxification pathways (Morgan and Bone, 2011).
How to support detoxification and cleansing processes
There are many natural supplements that can support a body’s detoxification and eliminative processes. It is perhaps useful to look at some of these in turn and consider their application.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a member of the ginger family and contains a number of active compounds including curcumin and essentials oils such as tumerones. The curcuminoids have attracted the most media and research attention for their anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties but are also valued by herbalists for several other applications. In clinical trials, turmeric has been found to protect the liver from many toxic substances, including alcohol (Rukkumani et al, 2004). Additionally, turmeric may be used therapeutically to reduce cholesterol, help manage blood sugar levels and improve the flow of bile from the liver (Jentzsch et al, 1959). This latter action on bile also supports its role in aiding elimination as bile is used by the body as a natural laxative.
Nettle leaf (Urtica dioica fol.) is a perennial plant native to the UK but found in temperate zones worldwide. Nettle is regarded in traditional medicine as an ‘alterative’, meaning a substance that improves detoxification and promotes elimination to increase the excretion of metabolic waste products from the body (Bone, 2003). Its major application in this traditional sense was to alleviate skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis that were seen to be caused by congestion within the body. In more modern medicine (and particularly in Germany), nettle is approved for the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia, infections of the lower urinary tract and rheumatic conditions (Fisher, 2009). However, western herbalists will commonly use nettle to support elimination and support the cleansing process in inflammatory conditions of all kinds.
Although historical uses of this celery seed (Apium graveolens) include indications such as ridding the body of worms and alleviating insomnia, more recently it has been used in conditions requiring detoxification and cleansing. It has an ayurvedic use in treating liver dysfunction and in Germany is regarded as a medicine for improving bowel function. Where western herbalists often see a strong value in celery seed is as a herb that aids the excretion of waste metabolites, such as uric acid, through the renal system. For this reason, it is strongly indicated for gout and other rheumatic or arthritic conditions (Australian Patent, 1995).
Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) is a plant with a fascinating history of use both in medicine, where it was regarded as a panacea for illness, and in cultural festivals. It is native to mountainous regions in Russia, Korea and China where it prefers the cool climates and is harvested for its valuable roots. Due to extensive research into Korean ginseng, we know that it contains numerous active compounds called ginsenosides, which are triterpene saponins in structure. It is a potent antioxidant (Zhang et al, 1996), which assists the body with detoxification, but also has adaptogenic action. By exerting an adaptogenic influence, it helps the cope with stressors more effectively and achieve a more favourable state. This effect is widespread throughout the body and may be seen in both hormonal and reproductive mechanisms, nervous system effects and in digestion (Fisher, 2009).
Although not regarded as the most obvious of detoxification or cleansing herbs, tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) has a broad spectrum of activity which includes strong antioxidant actions. More colloquially known as ‘holy basil’, tulsi has a long and proud history of use as a sacred and medicinal plant in its native habitat of Sri Lanka, India and China. A large part of its antioxidant action appears to be attributable to two particular enzymes, superoxide dismutase and superoxide catalase (Gupta et al, 2002). However, tulsi also demonstrates support in detoxification and cleansing through a variety of other means such as helping to clear lung congestion, support effective digestion and helping to clear the ‘mental fog’ that often arises where a body in overly taxed. In the Ayurvedic tradition, tulsi is regarded as having an action of deepana, which rekindles the digestive fire.
- Australian Patent 99469910-A. January 1995, Mobius Consultancy Pty Ltd.
- Bone, S, A clinical guide to blending liquid herbs, 2003, Churchill Livingstone
- Calder, I, Hangovers: Not The Ethanol, Perhaps The Methanol, British Medical Journal, Vol.14, pp.2-3
- Fisher, C, Materia Medica of Western Herbs, 2009, Vitex Medica
- Gupta et al, Validation of traditional claim of Tulsi, Ocimum sanctum Linn. As a medicinal plant, 2002, Indian J of Exper Biol., Vol.40, pp.765-773
- Jentzsch et al, Paper chromatographic and pharmacological investigations on curcuma pigments, Pharm acta Helv., 1959, Vol.34, pp.181-188
- Morgan, M and Bone, K, Herbs for enhancing Phase I/II hepatic detoxification, 2011, No.56 Mediherb
- Rukkumani et al, Comparative effects of curcumin and an analog of curcumin on alcohol and PUFA induced oxidative stress, J Pharm Pharm Sci., 2004, Vol.7(2), pp.274-283
- Schwartz, J, Air pollution and children’s health, 2004, Paediatrics, Vol.113 (4 Suppl.), pp.1037-1043
- Zhang et al, Ginseng extract scavenges hydroxyl radical and protects unsaturated fatty acids from decomposition caused by iron-mediated lipid peroxidation, Free Radic Biol Med., 1996, Vol.20(1), pp.145-150