A lot is said these days about "detoxification". We often hear of the values of doing a "liver detox", or going on a "detox diet", or the like.
But what does any of this really mean?
Why should we consider it important, and what is it specifically about these so-called "detox" strategies that
makes them useful?
Are there "detox" methods that don't work, or that we should be skeptical about?
These are the issues I intend to address in this two-part article.
What is "Detoxification"?
First off, detoxification is one of the basic functions that the body performs for itself. We organisms have been "detoxifying" ourselves from our own metabolic waste products, as well as from any environmental toxins we may encounter, since the days of our single-celled forebears. So our bodies are pretty good at it, as they have had hundreds of millions of years worth of practice.
The primary routes of detoxification involve the bowels and kidneys. These internal organs receive waste material, whether in solid or liquid/dissolved form, and excrete them through the rectum or bladder, respectively. The liver is also an essential part of this process, as it assists in directing these waste molecules for elimination, often by modifying them to make them more water soluble and thus easier to flush out. The lymph nodes and lymph vessels are distributed throughout the body, and serve to carry dissolved toxins and wastes toward the liver for elimination. These vessels rely on good hydration, and regular dynamic movement of the body to function optimally. Lastly, the skin and lungs function as secondary elimination organs, where the skin eliminates unwanted materials through the sweat, while the lungs expel gaseous wastes, not the least of which is the carbon dioxide our bodies continuously produce.
The Modern Detox Dilemma:
What is more widely recognized in the healthcare field are the health hazards that come with acute exposure to large quantities of toxins. For example, if a child ingests toxic compounds from below the sink, or if someone ingests a toxic amount of acetaminophen (Tylenol), then there are immediate ways to address the problem. Activated charcoal may be administered within an hour of the ingestion, and perhaps N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) may be given for its known protective effects on the liver against toxic damage. These are emergency situations involving acute large exposures to toxic compounds, and are often addressed in a hospital setting.
However, there is another kind of toxic exposure that continues to not receive the kind of recognition that it deserves. This is the low-level, chronic exposure that we ALL experience, to a wide variety of everyday post-industrial chemicals and toxins commonly used in industry and around our households.
The kinds of chronic toxin exposures we're concerned about include chemical pollutants, heavy metals, pesticides, drugs, alcohol, cigarette smoking, foods and additives. This is now in addition to toxins that result from waste of normal metabolism, as well as from build-up of unhealthy bacteria in the intestinal tract from a poor quality diet.
Sometimes, our natural detoxification mechanisms are not as efficient as they should be. They tend to slow down as we age, or they may be overwhelmed by the level of chronic exposure they are experiencing. Excess toxin build-up can result in symptoms such as allergies, fatigue, weight gain, sleep disturbance, chronic cough, constipation, acne, mood changes, chronic infections, impaired immune function, muscle and joint aches, and mental fogginess. A good detoxification program serves to enhance and support innate detoxification mechanisms so as to alleviate such symptoms.
In 2007, there was a University of BC study authored by David Boyd and Stephen Genuis, which claimed that pollution is effectively killing 25,000 Canadians per year and costing the healthcare system some 9 billion dollars per year. It seems Canadians are practically "swimming" in a sea of toxic chemicals, including pesticides, heavy metals, flame retardants, and air pollution. This pollution contributes to 24,000 new cases of cancer, as well as 2,500 low birth weight babies each year in Canada. Apparently Canada doesn't necessarily deserve the "pristine" reputation that it enjoys in the international community. We rank 28th in the 30-country Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development.
In the United States, over 80,000 different chemicals are presently in use, and less than 10% of them have been evaluated for safety. Among them, approximately 7,500 chemicals have been tested for health effects, but only in otherwise healthy young men, rather than also in more vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, the very old, or the very young. If a problem is indeed identified, it typically takes about 10 years for chemicals to be deemed unsafe to the general public, and thus banned. In 2001, about 6 billion pounds of harmful chemicals were released into the air and water nationwide.
What are these "toxins"?:
Below is a short list of Some of the chemicals we are likely to encounter chronically in our modern post-industrial society.
- PHTALATES - These chemicals are widespread in our shave lotions, aspirin, cosmetics, detergents, foods microwaved with plastic covers, oral pharmaceutical drugs, intravenous products prepared in plastic bags, hair sprays, insecticides, insect repellents, nail polish, nail polish remover, skin care products, adhesives, explosives, lacquer, janitorial products, perfumes, paper coatings, printing inks, safety glass, and varnishes. Phthalates are known to impede blood coagulation, lower testosterone, and alter sexual development in children. The male brain of the fetus may be feminized by low levels of phthalates, and may be hyper-masculinized by high levels.
- BENZENE - This ubiquitous chemical is a by-product of all sources of combustion, including cigarette smoke, and is a pollutant released by numerous industrial processes. Benzene is extremely toxic, and is thought to be mutagenic and carcinogenic. High levels of exposure can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, lack of coordination, central nervous system depression, and death.
- DIMETHYLBENZENES, also known as XYLENES, are found in common products such as paints, lacquers, pesticides, cleaning fluids, fuel and exhaust fumes, as well as in perfumes and insect repellents. High exposures to xylenes can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, central nervous system depression, and death.
- STYRENE - This compound is used in manufacturing plastics and building materials. Polystyrene and its copolymers are widely used as food-packaging materials. It is known that the styrene monomer is capable of leaching from polystyrene packaging into food. Occupational exposure due to inhalation of large amounts of styrene adversely impacts the central nervous system, causing concentration problems, muscle weakness, tiredness and nausea.
- ORGANOPHOSPHATES - This is one of the most toxic groups of substances on this list which are used throughout the world. Such is their toxicity that they are sometimes used as biochemical weapons for terrorist agents, but are most commonly used in pesticide formulations. By inhibiting the cholinesterase enzyme, organophosphates cause overstimulation of nerve cells. This causes sweating, salivation, diarrhoea, and abnormal behavior, including aggression and depression. Children have more than double the risk of developing pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), an autism spectrum disorder, when exposed to organophospates. Organophosphate exposure to pregnant mothers has been associated with such outcomes as having shorter pregnancies, and children with impaired reflexes.
- DIPHENYL PHOSPHATE - This is a metabolite of the organophosphate flame retardant triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), which is used in plastics, electronic equipment, nail polish, and resins. TPHP can cause hormonal disruption, and has been linked to reproductive and developmental problems.
- ACRYLAMIDE - (can polymerize to form polyacrylamide). Polyacrylamide is used in many processes such as plastics, food packaging, cosmetics, nail polish, dyes, and treatment of drinking water. Other sources of exposure include cigarette smoke and food. Acrylamide has been found in foods like potato chips, French fries, and many others such as asparagus, potatoes, legumes, nuts, seeds, beef, eggs, and fish. High levels of acrylamide can elevate a patient's risk of cancer.
- 1,3 BUTADIENE - This is a chemical made from the processing of petroleum, and mostly used in the production of synthetic rubber. It is a colourless gas with a mild gasoline-like odour. 1,3 Butadiene is a known carcinogen and has also been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Individuals that come into contact with rubber, such as car tires, could absorb 1,3 Butadiene through the skin. The increased use of old tires in the production of crumb rubber playgrounds and athletic fields is quite troubling because children and athletes may be exposed to toxic chemicals this way.
- POLYCHLORINATED BIPHENYLS (PCBs) - PCBs have been banned in Canada since 1977, but PCB-containing industrial equipment is still in use today. These chemicals are carcinogenic, reproductive and developmental toxins, and hormone disruptors. They can also depress the immune system.
- PERFLOURINATED CHEMICALS (PFCs) - PFCs are used in the making of nonstick and stain-repellent surface coatings on products like frying pans, as well as in carpets, water-resistant textiles, fire-fighting foam, and fast food packaging. These chemicals are very chemically stable, and so persist in the environment for a long time before being broken down. They tend to bioaccumulate in the bodies of animals, including humans. They are likely carcinogens and hormone disruptors.
- BISPHENOL A (BPA) - BPA is an organic synthetic compound that is colourless and soluble in organic solvents, but poorly soluble in water. It is the building block of various important plastics and plastic additives and polycarbonates. BPA has been associated with permanent changes to the genital tract, cancerous changes in breast tissue, enlarged prostate, early puberty, weight gain, and decline in testosterone. It has already been regulated out of use in baby bottles and sippy cups, but it is so pervasive that is it almost impossible to avoid. You find it in plastic bottles, CDs and DVDs, canned food, and receipt paper, among other ubiquitous uses. And on the occasion that BPA is banned from use in certain areas, it is all too often replaced with some other similarly dangerous chemical. This is known as a "regrettable substitution".
Detox Distractions / Potential Dangers:
Before we discuss what I would call more relevant and reliable strategies for detoxification, first a bit of warning about certain bogus "detox" methods that are commonly found on the internet.
One I remember from a few years ago was called the "Master Cleanse", which entailed eating no food at all, but instead only drinking a mixture of lemonade, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. Of course, this was only meant to be a temporary fast diet, but the idea was to "flush" out toxins by this method of solid food deprivation. One friend of mine claimed to have stuck to this fast for a full 21 days. To me, that is extreme, and potentially dangerous, especially for people who may be taking medication for diabetes.
Whether it is a fasting/liquid diet, or just a highly-restricted and rigid diet allowing only a limited variety of foods, you are likely to feel hungry and weak. Side effects can potentially be low blood sugar, muscle aches, dizziness, and nausea. Severely restricting your calories will likely lead to rapid weight loss, it is true, but it is more than likely that the weight will be regained as soon as the restricted diet is inevitably and appropriately ended. There is no evidence to show that depriving yourself in this way enhances detoxification. Far better to simply ensure the body has the nutritional resources it needs to detoxify effectively. Any "detox" product or "strict" diet plan, especially one that promises "detox" in a very short time, is probably fear-mongering and promoting misleading ideas.
The only kind of "detox" diet that might be considered worthwhile is a simple "clean" diet that limits highly processed, high-fat, and sugary foods, and replaces them with more whole foods such as fruits and vegetables.
Stay tuned next month, when we get into more detail on VALID detoxification strategies!