By Roberta Benson
Our health depends on our body’s ability to cope with all we encounter: substances taken in through air, mouth, and skin; mental and physical experiences; and the substances produced by every biological process of our bodies. The main detoxifying organ we have is the liver. It does an invaluable service in filtering blood and breaking down and then packaging toxins for safe removal. To give ourselves a fighting chance against the rampant toxicity of modern life, we need to cleanse and nurture this wonderful organ.
Stresses on the liver
In the last 150 years, human-made chemicals used in modern lifestyles have increased exponentially. Pesticides, industrial compounds, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, particulates, and ever-present plastics are toxins our ancestors did not have to contend with.
Our modern diet also generates a load on our body. We rely heavily on processed foods that have much of the nutritive value stripped out and additives that extend shelf life slipped in. Agricultural practices deplete the soil and add petrochemical pollution. Our hectic lifestyle depends on crutches such as caffeine, alcohol, poor quality fats, and sugar to make it through the day. Meanwhile, our basic physiology has scarcely changed from Paleolithic times. Our environment has changed radically but our biology has not. We are not equipped to handle the onslaught of chemicals we are exposed to. This poses a real problem for our health.
Built-in capacity to detox
Our bodies do have a built-in capacity for detoxification. With every breath, we exhale carbon dioxide. Sweating removes heat from our body and also rids us of BPA (Bisphenol A, a plastic derivative) and heavy metals. The liver, kidneys, and lymph system work at filtering and cleaning our body fluids. All these biological processes operate to promote and maintain efficient cellular and organ functioning. Yet in today’s world we accumulate more waste than our daily detox mechanisms can process. It’s a no-brainer that we need to support our detoxification pathways.
Of all the organs of detoxification, the liver, the hardest working organ of our body, deserves to be singled out. Not only is it responsible for over 200 different metabolic processes, it also filters roughly 2 quarts of blood per minute! Harmful substances are filtered out and, in an intricate process, the liver deactivates these wastes and re-packages them for safe removal from the body.
The liver detoxifies in two phases.
- In Phase 1, the liver is able to break substances down with enzymes into forms the body can remove immediately. No further processing is necessary. Coffee is one example of a substance detoxified in Phase 1. Other substances however, are broken down into intermediate compounds that are even more dangerous to the body than the original substance was. These compounds require further processing to be detoxified.
- In Phase 2, the intermediate substances are broken down further, and then bound with proteins or other water-soluble molecules. These can then be safely excreted from the body. Acetaminophen (Tylenol), xenoestrogens (estrogen mimickers), and glyphosate (the byproduct of Round Up) are a few of the many toxic substances that require the two-step process.
Detoxification works best when the body isn’t engaged in other biological processes, in particular, digestion. Both bodily functions occur best when our system is in its “rest and repair” (parasympathetic) state. The body, however, prioritizes digestion over detoxification. Undigested food rots and ferments in the gastrointestinal tract, causing inflammation. This spells trouble down the road. Because of this, much of our liver’s detox work occurs when we give our digestive system a rest whether at night or during an elimination diet, which is one component of a liver cleanse, as we shall see.
Elements of a good liver cleanse
So, what is the anatomy of a good liver cleanse? In general, there are a few crucial elements.
- An elimination diet. Removing major allergens and hard-to-digest foods relieves the liver from many of its other functions, freeing it up to purge. Corn, gluten, eggs, meat, sugar, processed foods, coffee, and alcohol are some examples of foods that can be eliminated. An initial, short (1 day) liquid-only fast can be helpful in clearing the colon.
- Improving circulation and enhancing elimination. All elimination pathways need to be open and flowing. Optimal hydration, manual therapies such as dry skin brushing, saunas, and massage, are techniques that are helpful to enhance blood flow and lymph flow. Toxins released from tissues, but not removed from the body, however, will ultimately be re-absorbed and could also cause side effects like nausea or headache.
- The liver needs some supplementation. As mentioned above, Phase I detoxification is enzyme-driven and largely dependent on a plentiful supply of antioxidant nutrients. Whole complex E, C, the carotenoids, selenium, glutathione/NAC are some of the important substances for this phase of detoxification. Antioxidants and vitamins, however, are team players. They do not function well as isolated components of a complex. The Red Clover Clinic article on whole food concentrates vs. synthetic supplements. Understanding supplements: synthetic vitamins vs. whole food concentrates, explains this concept.
- The liver needs to be optimally fed. Phase 2 detoxification requires several different substances to accomplish detoxification. Amino acids (proteins molecules) are one, making good, clean proteins critical in the diet. (This is one of the reasons why fasting and drinking only water are counter-productive for liver detoxification. During such fasts, the liver is starved of the nutrients it needs to do its work! Another substance required by some Phase 2 detoxification pathways are sulphur-bearing molecules. Here, consuming vegetables from the allium family is helpful because of their high sulphur content. These include onions, shallots, and garlic. Yet other pathways depend on nutrients found in the cruciferous family: broccoli, cabbage and kale are examples.
- Specific herbal and food support for the liver. There are also foods and herbs that nurture the liver and its companion, the gall badder. Milk thistle, of which silymarin is the active constituent, is very protective and regenerative for the liver. Beets help thin bile, which in turn carries toxins out of the body via the intestines. Dandelion, yellow dock and burdock root are herbs used to promote liver health.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of nutrients necessary for liver health, nor is it meant to be a recipe for a cleanse. Instead this article is intended to supply a basic understanding of how our liver functions to protect our bodies from toxin load. Your nutrition specialist can help you design a detoxification program tailored to you and your needs.
Roberta is certified through the Nutritional Therapy Association and is currently studying Nutrition Response Testing and Morphogenic Field Technique. Currently she is practicing as a massage therapist at Red Clover Clinic, and is hoping to begin offering nutrition sessions to our clients soon.